A Dangerous Method: Paging Dr. Freud | Film Review

In the film, A Dangerous Method. Director David Cronenberg examines the psychological triangle that formed between Dr. Freud and Dr. Jung and a Russian patient named Sabina Spielrein. Set in Vienna in 1907 the film introduces audiences to the birth of psychoanalysis. A 29-year-old Dr. Jung meets his mentor in Dr. Freud and thus begins his training in the talking cure. A Dangerous Method is based upon the discovered writings of Spielrein that reveal how much she had been lost in the history of psychoanalysis. A Dangerous Method is a film that captures the role of ego in the early quirky relationship of the two men responsible for the birth and development of modern psychotherapy.

Michael Fassbender plays a Jung who is still beginning to explore the unconscious. The Swiss doctor had been trained in medical science but was drawn to work with Freud to uncover the roots of emotional difficulty. The first patient for Dr. Jung was an 18-year-old Russian hysteric named Sabina Spielrein. Sabina had exhibited in the session an obsession with bodily functions and corporal punishment. It is revealed later on that Sabina’s father had physically punished her.

Viggo Mortensen plays Dr. Freud. Now remember this is the Dr. Freud before the term Freudian was developed. It is also a Dr. Freud who had visions of fame that eventually influenced his relative to develop the profession of public relations. However it was a Freud in this film who is not the Freud we know today. Rather we see a man who is as obsessed with his own ideas as he is later is preoccupied with libido, ID and ego. Dr. Freud is a man who understands that what he is proposing is controversial. During this time in the pre-World War I Europe it was mostly women who exhibited or were identified as having emotional problems. Often such women were sent to institutions where they were subjected to various forms of treatment to stop them from hurting themselves or screaming without provocation. What is interesting is that many of the ailments that appeared to be psychological were a reflection of an individual reaction to a repressive society and its expectations for women. This was also a time when modern psychiatry did not exist in the form we know today. There was no such thing as prescription medication or an understanding that brain abnormalities are often at the root of bizarre behavior. Many psychological problems are merely in need of brain chemistry intervention. The talking cure emerged at a time when modern science did not have the understanding or knowledge that talking only goes so far.

When one thinks of psychoanalysis it is either Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung that is the reference point. Through Dr. Jung we learn of the unconscious, synchronicity and archetypes. Dr. Jung was big on symbolism and this is where the film delivers an explanation for that. When Dr. Jung first began treating Sabina she was in a state of distress. During their sessions it was revealed that a lot of Sabina’s behavior was the result of repressed emotions and reactions to particular traumatic events in her childhood. As Sabina recovers through Jung’s treatment, the story becomes much more interesting. With all the talk of repression, the film suggests that by not repressing ones primal and basic urges those neuroses are cured. The problems between the men began when Sabina and Jung embarked upon a highly inappropriate doctor-patient relationship.

Who would have thought that the Swiss image of an old Carl Jung, a man who appears so stoic in his photographs, was once a cheating spouse who engaged in S&M with a patient? Disturbing too is the possibility that Jung and Sabina had an intimate relationship. It is interesting to know that a man whose ideas are such a major part of most schools of psychological thought where psychoanalysis is concerned, had violated of one of the tenants of his profession. One must understand that there were no rules back then. Doctors were not punished for breaching a patient’s trust. Someone actually told me that all the doctors were doing that in the early 20th century. Without the presence of a regulatory agency all of them got away with it.

The schism between Dr. Freud and Dr. Jung appears to have been a direct result of Sabina’s relationship with both men. Dr. Freud did not approve of the affair between Jung and Sabina. Their growing tension was only amplified when Sabina began to have a collegial relationship with Freud herself as another apprentice. It was in the father daughter dynamic between Freud and Sabina versus is the sadomasochistic one with the Jung that caused everything to break apart. Ironically, Sabina went on to study child development with Piaget after leaving Vienna. Piaget was another major contributor to the field of psychoanalysis. Eventually Sabina became an analyst herself despite her early mental health history. The story of this dangerous liaison triangle was almost lost until Sabina’s papers were found years later in Switzerland.

An intriguing idea for A Dangerous Method is whether Sabina was as much a founder of psychoanalysis as Freud and Jung. Did Sabina actually provide the inspiration for Jung to create the series of concepts to which he is known for? The whole notion of being a Jungian therapist is that one delves into the subconscious to pull out the meaning behind why a person behaves the way they do. How much of this was really Dr. Jung’s insights versus how much was actually borrowed and not credited to Sabina’s own thoughts and ideas? Sadly, Sabina was murdered by Nazis during World War II and therefore does not leave any living descendant to add evidence to prove her liaison with Jung was true. We do know that such was the extent of her interaction with both men that the split that defined two schools of thought appear to be tied to her.

A Dangerous Method follows on the heels of a book by the same name. It also follows after a 2002 film called My Name Was Sabina Spielrein. That film was a foreign-language movie that was told specifically from the perspective of Sabina. While this film is almost 10 years older than A Dangerous Method it provides a viewpoint of how much Sabina and Jung formulated concepts together. However the debate continues whether Sabina and Jung really did have an affair or if she was imagining it. The truth remains unknown. We do know that Dr. Freud today still has some kind of influence over psychoanalysis. The talking cure is no longer seen as gospel. Dr. Jung’s notion of symbolism and archetype may be interesting but it won’t cure a bipolar patient. Only Lithium and a cocktail of drugs can stabilize an imbalanced brain. No amount of talking will actually make that person better.

To see A Dangerous Method is to see a version of history that was almost lost. What matters is not so much whether this is all true. The most important thing about A Dangerous Method and the story that unfolds is that the founders of what was meant to heal the mind with the talking cure, were individuals that perhaps needed their own medicine. While Dr. Freud contributed much to the understanding of how people’s thoughts are constructed and influence personality he was a man with his own firm ideas. Dr. Jung was the same. The point is, A Dangerous Method almost suggests that seeing a therapist may not heal you. In fact it may cause disruptions to which neither party can truly handle. Without boundaries all hell breaks loose even among the most educated men in Vienna. After you watch A Dangerous Method you will either; (1) want to know more about Dr. Freud and Dr. Jung; or (2) never want to sit on an analyst’s couch ever again.




Jackie Morrison (JackieMO) is an Arts and Culture writer in California. She enjoys foreign film and methodactors, Broadway theater, photography and the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Would love a lifetime membership to any film festival in the world! BA in Psychology and avid reader of literary magazines. Favorite book is The Last Letter From Your Lover by Jojo Moyes.
Jackie Morrison
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