Movie Review: A Dangerous Method

Ambivalence, not sex, is the innermost dirty secret that Freud managed to flush into the open. We love and we hate, sure, but often wind up mingling extreme emotions toward anyone to whom we are intensely linked, and in varying degrees and guises. The exploration of this fickle core within our troublesome selves, and the bold lives of inquisitive spirits like Freud and Jung, is the admirably ambitious aim of David Cronenberg’s latest film. Psychoanalysis rudely demolishes the illusion that we are masters in our own turbulent houses, but Freud also showed we could come to grips with this trickiest of human conditions and trek on with some decency and dignity. Does the film’s title (drawn from John Kerr’s book) imply psychoanalysis is too dangerous to apply or else that it is a valuable yet hazardous tool in the hands of even the most adroit practitioner? Cronenberg opts for the latter verdict in this account of two touchy titans brought together for a spell by one hell of a young sorceress.

Cronenberg taps into a controversial century-old case (disclosed in the 1970s) replete with therapeutic experiments, betrayals and self-deceptions, and tracks how they figured in forming the best of the methods yet devised for navigating the kaleidoscope of the human soul. In a pill-happy, gene-infatuated era drenched in anti-Freudian bile, Cronenberg and writer Christopher Hampton deserve full marks for nerve and flair in transmuting this tortuously complicated story into intelligible cinematic shape for a mass audience. That said, could anyone really portray the epic rupture, personal as much as professional, between Freud and Jung without taking sides? Well, no – and we’ll get to that tender point below.  Still, this daringly intelligent film is well worth seeing despite all its faults and slips and feints and dodges. Cronenberg truly tries to conjure an evenhanded portrayal of the three-way drama, but many viewers will be misled or puzzled by seductive pat answers explaining away the antics of the dramatis personae.

Freud, entrancingly played by Viggo Mortenson, comes across as a low-key magisterial figure, a keen questing intellect who is erudite, urbane, and savvy. This Freud, unlike many a mocking modern cartoon of him, is neither fanatic nor fool but a sober sage intent on keeping his audacious enterprise – childhood sexuality, the unconscious, the iconic couch, etcetera – on an even scientific keel despite formidable opposition, distortion and scorn.  The young Carl Jung (Michael Fassbinder) is priggishly earnest and yet airy too, giving the impression of a wobbly vendor of helium balloons in a high wind skidding across solid ground. Jung at this formative stage in his life is the classic physician who cannot heal himself, except through violating oaths and patients first. “Sometimes you have to do something unforgiveable,’ Jung laments,  “just to go on living.” Jung is the chary ‘crown prince” who cannot help but cross his increasingly aggravated mentor at almost every turn.

The Freud-Jung schism, like Freud’s splits with Alfred Adler and others, usually is trundled out as absolute proof that Freud was a tyrant intent on stifling independent spirits in the clan – such as the wayward wanton sprite Otto Gross. In Cronenberg’s film Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel) functions as Jung’s external ‘shadow” – a kind of mini-me Mephistopheles urging the tormented psychiatrist to surrender to all temptations of the flesh. And the devil, of course, gets all the best lines. (“Monogamy? I can’t image a more stressful concept.”) Gross was one of the so-called “wild analysts” of the era– ranging from unwitting apostates to sheer charlatans – whose mischief Freud had to police as best he could before they discredited his entire enterprise. Keep in mind the exquisite irony that Freud himself was a fierce rebel who battled a repressive society saturated with hypocritical norms, one not so different from the miserable ‘moral’ world the televangelists toil to impose on Americans today.

The film’s ‘catalyst’ is the fetchingly wretched Sabine Spielrein, who brings together Jung and Freud first as a deeply disturbed patient whose radical “talking cure” treatment they discuss, and later as an aspiring psychoanalyst herself so as, she tells Jung, “to give people back their freedom the way you gave me mine.” Keira Knightly, who must have sniffed Oscar nomination, portrays Spielrein in a carpet-chewing, jaw-jutting jamboree of facial tics and other egregious acting school excesses. Had Speilrein, by all accounts a charming and lively soul after her cure, been half so prickly and morbidly intense as shown here Jung would have scampered to a galaxy far, far away at warp speed. Spielrein actually was a remarkably intelligent and insightful person, as were many talented women who joined Freud’s alleged den of misogyny and thrived there.[1]

Dangerous Method opens at a ferocious gallop in Zurich in 1904. Spielrein, troubled offspring of an affluent Russian Jewish family, is hauled in a coach to the renowned Burgholzi psychiatric hospital, grimacing and gnashing, jingling and jangling all the way. Doctor Jung soon is staring benignly down at this gibbering wraith of a girl robed in white, crouching on the hospital floor. “I’m not mad, you know,” she gamely spits. Unbeknownst to her the Burgholzli staff had fiddled with every imaginable medieval torture of the mentally ill or odd, but things thankfully now were changing.[2] Jung, inspired by Freud, merely urges her to free associate. For the crime of playing with her food an attendant warns Spielrein that she will inform hospital director Eugen Bleuler, who was known to support sterilization in certain cases. Spielrein gets off with nothing worse than a tepid bath. For splashing around in Ophelia-like hysteria in a fetid pond, she likely would have been surgically mutilated by Bleuler’s predecessor (August Forel) in the holy name of the search for a sound medical solution. Anyway, Jung helps to heal her through the new-fangled Freudian method and, less laudably, hooks up with her romantically.

Next thing you know Spielrein is helping Jung administer word association tests, through which she swiftly divines Jung himself is weary with his wealthy wife Emma (soon to be a sharp psychotherapist herself), who seems to get pregnant every time he exhales around her.  “Her husband may be losing interest,” Sabine solemnly diagnoses. “You’ve quite a flair for this,” Jung marvels. Jung laments that Freud put out the barest outline of how to perform analysis so he is especially eager to correspond with, and meet, the master. Turnabout becomes fair play on the spookily perceptive Spielrein as Jung ferrets out her own secrets. Corporal punishment as a child left her with a pronounced bent for sexual masochism, which Cronenberg can’t resist prefiguring by a rather arch shot of Jung whacking Sabine’s billowy cloak with his long straight cane.

Freud’s Vienna lair. Spring 1907. Three years elapse. Jung finally sees Freud face to furrowed face. Our intrepid doctors enjoy an enthralling wide-ranging conversation that lasts the whole day, with a bit of mutual back patting about Spielrein as a “walking advertisement for the effect of psychoanalysis.” Their mutual adoration society, however, contains disruptive ripples that mark any serious intellectual relationship. Jung from the start skittishly pleads for a milder term than libido, that is, the sexual drive, as the root concern of psychoanalysis. Freud sensibly replies, “Once they work out what we mean they’ll be just as appalled as ever.” Freud nonetheless is smitten; here is a gifted ‘Aryan’ successor who can pry psychoanalysis out of the central European Jewish ghetto to which he feared it was confined.  A token of Freud’s esteem is his request for Jung to look after the sybaritic and self-destructive former analyst Otto Gross, who was committed by his father to the Burgholzi. Gross is a skyrocket, rapidly ascending with pungent one-liners, unsettling Jung, bonking a nurse and escaping the hospital ultimately to hit a literal dead end in 1920, a less pleasing outcome than  that of Spielrein.  Jung ungallantly later credits Gross, not Spielrein, with crystallizing crucial ideas – such as the anima and the shadow – he pursued ever afterward.[3]

Back in Zurich Spieirein deftly seduces Jung, who by the way is still her analyst. They make love Victorianly, almost fully clothed, leaving a virgin’s bloodstain on the sheets. From his blushing wary behavior you’d think it was Jung’s. Then behold our proud family man standing beside his indulgent but astute wife Emma in front of their deluxe gingerbread house. Unwitting Emma surprises her straying spouse with the present of a shiny new sailboat, which triggers strangely spasmodic guilt. In A Dangerous Method it is Jung alone who is tortured with guilt, Jung alone who suffers self-blame, Jung alone who feels deceitful – and who goes on deceiving. In a trice, guilty or not, red sails loom in the sunset and a tilt-down shot captures Jung and Spielrein entwined in the womb-like cockpit of his wife’s generous gift. We are jollied every single step of the scripted way into excusing, and sympathizing with, this poor conflicted Swiss prig. The rest of the cinematic tale turns around Jung manfully freeing himself both from his plainly taboo entanglement with his patient Spielrein, which he initiated as much as she did, and to wriggle free from a powerful father-son relationship with Freud, which the movie omits to mention he himself explicitly urged on Freud. Talk about ambivalence!

‘You musn’t think I have a closed mind,’ Freud, who privately believed there was something to telepathy, implores Jung regarding religious speculations.[4] (Jung’s father was a gloomy clergyman, his mother a bubbly spiritualist, and his dissertation explicitly probed the Occult.) Freud simply saw no point drawing more ridicule on his nascent movement by openly pursuing paranormal research too.  Jung, now dubbed Freud’s heir, comes to view Freud’s followers (who, to be fair, mightily resent him) as nothing more than “degenerates and bohemians picking up crumbs from his table.” Hey, just look at Gross, who shakes up Jung rather badly.  “Perhaps [Freud] seeks obedience,” Jung muses in a customarily self-serving way.  Jung grouses that Freud is ”inflexible” and “obsessively sexual” because, you know, there “must be more than one hinge into the universe.”  Well, Freud thought so too. Their correspondence attests that Freud strived to overlook Jung’s escalating deviations.[5] Cronenberg treats us to an eerie incident when a bookcase in Freud’s office makes a crackling noise. Jung predicts an encore that happens on cue. Freud was startled by ‘the poltergeist moment,’ which Jung termed a ‘catalytic exteriorization phenomenon,’ but it didn’t spur Freud to embrace a supernatural research agenda. (Nor could he forbid Jung from following his hocus-pocus inclinations.) The next cracking noise we hear is Jung spanking Sabine in erotic prelude.

Freud is depicted as a pretty smooth pragmatist willing to appease the establishment when at this time in 1908 he published perhaps his most radical essay on “Civilized Sexual Ethics and Modern Nervousness, ”which defiantly championed the individual against smothering cultural constraints. The filmmakers maneuver Freud into the role of stolid model-builder and thus make Jung appear the audacious radical when neither depiction was quite the case. The sailboat, scene of adulterous trysts, is made a site for subtly mocking Freud. The formally attired Doktor uncomfortably nestles in Jung’s boat and confronts him, gently, about rumors of an affair with Spielrein. Jung denies it.  (Jeez, why can’t Freud lighten up like Jung?) Freud briefly is a deceived  ‘go-between’ defending Jung to Spielrein, of all people, as “incapable of shabby or frivolous behavior.”

The reckless affair is exposed when an anonymous letter, likely scribbled by Jung’s wife, alerts Spielrein’s parents. Jung indignantly retorts that Spielrein is no longer his patient “since I stopped charging you.” So the distinction between patient and fair game is cast as a purely monetary one, which is an outrageously unethical or, to put it charitably, desperate ploy. Spielrein remains frantic, needy and hectoring. She even slices Jung’s cheek with a knife. Any sane shrink would have fled this crazed Fatal Attraction precursor, except the cheek was never slashed. Jung resigns from the Burgholzi because of the impending scandal that he whines that Speilrein caused, but is his own fault. Spielrein, who will earn her own medical degree in 1911, also demands that Jung tell Freud the truth about the affair. Jung blusters, “You’re blackmailing me.”  This self-absolving reply takes astounding nerve, but the film portrays Jung as the injured party.

Jung has no choice but to confess. Freud duly apologizes to Spielrein who impresses him so much when they meet that she soon enters Freud’s circle as an analyst in training. Her contributions are significant ones. Spielrein suggests to Jung that there is an ingredient of “man in every woman and vice versa.” Presto, Jung’s anima. Wrestling with why the sexual drive is so easy to repress, Spielrein proposes that “only the clash of destructive forces can create something new” and that true sexuality demands fusion and the temporary destruction of the ego. Despite Jung (and the filmmakers) hailing her proposition as the heretical opposite of Freud’s notions, Freud himself urged publication of Spielrein’s work in the Psychoanalytic Society’s yearbook. a paper regarded as a forerunner of Freud’s concept of the ‘death instinct.”[6] Yet Spielrein, who afterward did her level best to reconcile Jung and Freud, is treated onscreen more like an idiot savant than a truly creative thinker.

Next stop? Jung and Freud (and Sandor Ferenczi) voyage off to a triumphant visit to Clark University in 1909. Sigmund and Carl’s excellent adventure is marred both when Jung moseys to a first class stateroom while Freud is relegated to shabby second class, which was not true, and when Freud declines to share a revealing dream with Jung, which is true. Jung claimed Freud lost his authority at that moment, yet for several years afterward Jung was repeatedly on record as revering his Viennese mentor.[7] Freud, by the way, had construed one of Jung’s dreams as a wish to displace the father figure, himself. Hard to fault Freud’s interpretation nowadays. Later, Jung’s wife inquires why Freud refused to meet Jung’s boss Bleuler. Jung casually replies, “Freud was a great one for bearing Incomprehensible grudges.” Incomprehensible? The filmmakers omit mentioning that Jung himself had gotten fed up with Bleuler much sooner than with Freud (who had a testy but overall good relationship with Bleuler).[8] It seems to be characteristic of Jung to search assiduously for clay feet in anyone he idealized. It is not a rare syndrome – tabloids thrive on it. Any audience member, by the way, can be forgiven for thinking that anti-Semitism existed only in Freud’s head, for there is no trace of it in the film.[9]

Jung is awarded the upper hand in an exchange with Freud over the symbolic meaning of an Egyptian artifact. Jung indeed gets every break the filmmakers can muster. (Artists love Jung’s work and for good reason.) Deviations pile up and Freud – painfully for both men – severs the relationship in 1913. Jung quickly goes into a protracted tailspin from which he eventually emerges with extraordinary verve.  Spielrein, now married, pregnant and an analyst herself, visits her disconsolate former lover, who shares nothing less than a prophetic vision of apocalyptic World War. Jung’s wife hilariously but improbably tells Spielrein that she ‘tried to persuade him to let you analyze him”! Jung is given the last uplifting word, saying we have to “help the person off on a journey at the end of which he becomes the person he always intended to be.” Well, okay. That Jung could be a louse in his personal relations does not remotely ruin the value of his fascinating life’s work, whether you credit the mystical forays or not.  Freud, and no doubt your grandmother, advised us to regard all surfaces – especially the most plausible and persuasive ones – with some suspicion.  A Dangerous Method clinches their case.


Kurt Jacobsen is a research associate at The University of Chicago, book review editor for Logos, and author of Freud’s Foes: Psychoanalysis, Science and Resistance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Pacification and Its Discontents (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2010), and most recently, co-authored with Sayeed Hasan Khan, Parables of Permanent War, published by Lexington.




[1] See Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester, Freud’s Women (New York: Basic Books, 1992), Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (London: Allan Lane, 1974), Jean Strousse, ed, Women and Analysis (New York: G.K Hall, 1985) and Janet Sayers, Mothers of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 1993).

[2] See Elliot Valenstein, Great and Desperate Cures (New York: Basic Books,1986) and Andrew Scull, Museums of Madness (London: Allan Lane, 1972).

[3] Bruno Betteleheim, ‘A Secret Symmetry,’ in Freud’s Vienna and other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1991), p. 26

[4] ‘In my opinion it shows no great confidence in science if one does not think it capable of assimilating and working over whatever may perhaps turn out to be true in the assertions of occultists.’ Freud, ‘Dreams and Occultism,’ in New Introductory Lectures (New York: Norton, 1965), p. 49.

[5] ‘It seems I shall have to go my own way for some time to come,’ Jung informs Freud in June 1912. ‘But you know how obstinate we Swiss are.’ Jung breezily writes of his American visit. ‘I found that my version of [psychoanalysis] won over many people who until now had been put off by the problem of sexuality on neurosis.’  William McGuire, ed. The Freud/Jung Letters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 233, 237-238.

[6] Coline Covington and Barbara Wharton, eds. Sabine Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003), p. ix.

[7] Bettelheim, ‘A Secret Symmetry,’ p. 60.

[8] Paul G Stern, C.G. Jung: The Haunted Prophet (New York: George Braziller, 1976),  p. 55.

[9] ‘Nervous illnesses’ were officially regarded as ‘higher among Jews than among the other races of Europe.’ John Kerr, A Most Dangerous Method (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 22. Also see Sander Gillman, Freud, Race and Gender (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 93-131


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Kevin B. Anderson: Marcuse’s and Fromm’s Correspondence with the Socialist Feminist Raya Dunayevskaya: A New Window on Critical Theory

By Riad Azar: The Clogged Capillaries of the Peruvian Amazon

By Arnold Farr: Antithesis Incarnate: Christopher Hitchens, A Retrospective Glance

By Stephen Eric Bronner: Modernism, Surrealism, and the Political Imaginary

By Ian Williams: Racialized Consciousness, Symbolic Representionalism, and the Prophetic/Critical Voice of the Black Intellectual

By Yehonatan Alsheh: What is Genocide?

By Daniel Feierstein: The Concept of Genocide and the Partial Destruction of the National Group

By Alexander Hinton: Genocide and Effacement: A Conference on Cambodia, a Painting, and Ways of Knowing

By Hedda Smulewicz: Sculpture

By Kurt Jacobsen: Movie Review: A Dangerous Method

By chrismorda: Robert Cohen’s Freedom’s Orator and Edward P. Morgan’s What Really Happened to the 1960s

By Colin Hughes: Lawrence M Krauss’, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, and Graham Farmelo’s, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

By John G. Rodwan, Jr: Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22 and Arguably: Essays

By David H. Price: Ivan Greenberg, The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties Since 1965

By Chad Levinson: Cedric Johnson (ed.), The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans