They became colleagues and then friends, but later split, perhaps over ideology and perhaps also over a young woman who was originally a patient of Jung’s but then studied under Freud. Apparently Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) was abused by her father, but admitted to Dr. Jung that she actually enjoyed the humiliation, and even found it titillating. That, apparently, triggered the latent S&M fantasies of the otherwise-dignified Dr. Jung, and, according to this film, their inappropriate intimate relationship caused Dr. Jung’s irrevocable breach with Dr. Freud (as well it should have). The “talk-it-through” therapy method, however, was then practiced by Dr. Spielrein in her native Russia, but war and chance happened to them all.
Jung’s provocative exploration of dream interpretation (well-established in the Bible) at first drove him mad: It seems he foresaw the horrible carnage of World War I, which would give anybody a nervous breakdown if they thought they could prevent it. But he wound up outliving everybody and dying peacefully in 1961. Freud was driven out of Austria by the Nazis and died in England in 1939. Spielrein was captured and shot by the Germans when they invaded Russia in 1942. So what do we learn about the burgeoning science of psychotherapy from “A Dangerous Method”?
Not much, really. The Sigmund Freud here (Viggo Mortensen) pontificates like a doting professor, and seems not nearly edgy enough to propound breakaway theories on the sexual synergy of human behavior. The Jung here (Michael Fassbender) is much more tortured, teetering on the brink of guilt and lust while still maintaining the appearance of the distinguished doctor with the lovely family and beautiful country estate. And, yes, there are some who will be distracted by Ms. Knightley’s rather vigorous, physical, psycho-sexual portrayal of the patient-turned-seducer-turned-therapist. This reviewer thought it was Henri J. Nouwen, the Dutch priest and spiritualist, who came up with the notion of wounded healers, but here they not only throw around that concept 60 years earlier, they seem to revel in it.
Yes, of course, we’re dealing in transference and counter-transference and searching for the approving father-figure and considering the balance between self-indulgence and societal standard-keeping, but we’re not very intellectual about it. In fact, at the only international conference in the film, all the other participants pointedly leave the table when Jung and Freud start arguing. As if they’ve heard it all before, or it’s not interesting enough to hang around and find out how the dispute is resolved. That pretty much sums up this shallow psychobabble titillation, as well.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.