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The movie A Dangerous Method focuses on one specific aspect of psychology, the early years of psychoanalysis. The interaction between the well-known psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung was seminal in the creation of the new discipline. What the movie looks at is the importance of two other, less famous colleagues, Sabrina Spielrein and Otto Gross, who were influential at the beginning of the movement.

The movie focuses on Sabina Spielrein, a young woman admitted to Burghölzli, the famous mental hospital in Zurich, and played by Keira Knightley. Diagnosed with hysteria, she’s treated by Carl Jung, then a physician just learning Freud’s psychoanalysis and played by Michael Fassbender. Spielrein begins to help Jung with his scientific studies into the discipline as well as earning her medical degree. Freud, played by Viggo Mortensen, would send Austrian Otto Gross to Jung for therapy, a meeting that would change Jung’s mind about repression. After months of therapy (and with an acknowledge crush on him), she and Jung begin an affair, and she began a correspondence with Freud. Eventually, she would become a psychoanalyst in her right with the publication of her dissertation on destruction in the psyche, which would influence both men.  Jung and Freud would eventually have a falling out, and she and Jung would break up. She became one of the Russia’s first and most influential psychoanalysts, focusing on children. She would be killed by the Nazis in 1941.

Spielrein is one of psychoanalysis’ lost creators. The main focus of the discipline was created by Freud at the turn of the century, but by 1910, most of the doctors working with theory were concerned about its focus entirely on sex. The drives for destruction and pleasures other than sex were introduced early on, as were the ideas of repression, and the id, ego and superego. Spielrein’s work with Jung convinced both of them that the drive for creation contained an element of destruction not addressed in Freud’s work (yet; he would add it to “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in 1920, a full 8 years after she’d published her work), nor Jung’s (yet; he would name it transformation). Her work with the two men and her influence on the beginnings of psychoanalysis hasn’t been fully acknowledged. In addition, she was one of the first doctors to use psychoanalysis on children, to acknowledge that what they were going through affected their mental health and behavior.  She also treated Jean Paiget, one of child psychology’s major figures.

Otto Gross, on the other hand, had less of a direct influence on the field, mainly due to his extreme views, but greater in the art world. Gross was an early adopter of psychoanalysis, but felt that any repression was bad for a person. As a result, he encouraged free love and drug use, things the straight-laced Freud and Jung didn’t support. He was also a consumer, dealing with a substance use condition for much of his life. His theories directly influenced Jung during the brief period when Gross was his patient. He helped Jung crystalize his personality theory of extroversion and, according to the movie, encouraged him to have an affair with Spielrein, which would push Jung further from Freud. He also helped show Jung the limits of psychoanalysis, when Gross was able to take control of a session between the two men. His influence would later be felt in Dadaist art and bohemian culture (up to the counterculture of the ‘60s).

Early psychoanalysis is focused on Freud and Jung and is often seen as a battle between the two titans, when, in reality, the field evolved as doctors tested Freud’s work and added their own theories. Many people are ignored, marginalized or written out of history entirely. The movie even briefly features Eugen Bleuler, the head of Burghölzli, and the man who named schizophrenia, but does not touch on his contributions to the field.

I think this movie sheds light on a lot of important things going on at the beginning of psychoanalysis, but it doesn’t do it completely, or particularly entertainingly. Keira Knightley overacts for much of the movie, and Vincent Cassel’s Otto Gross seems like he belongs in a different movie. David Cronenberg, the director (also of previous blog topic Spider), wanted to make talking about sex as exciting as the visual representations usually found in his movies. He fails, leaving the movie feeling a bit stilted. Instead of feeling like the characters belong in the turn of the century Europe, they feel like they are in a play about the time. It distracts from the story, which I think would make a great miniseries.

A Dangerous Method is an OK movie about an interesting topic. If you are interested in the beginning of psychoanalysis, this isn’t a bad place to start. If you like Cronenberg movies or period pieces, stay away.


Next week, we’ll take a look at The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a modern movie about mental health in teens. Have you seen A Dangerous Method? What did you think?