Freud, Jung And What Went Wrong

Dec 3, 2011
Originally published on December 3, 2011 6:27 pm

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are known as the fathers of psychoanalysis, but they focused on different things. Freud's attention was on the sexual underpinnings of — well, almost everything — and Jung was known for his mystical bent and dream theories.

For years, the two were close friends and collaborators but they had a falling out that ultimately ended their relationship. Turns out, there was a woman involved. Her name was Sabina Spielren.

The stories of all three are woven together in a new film, A Dangerous Method.

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin that Spielrein, a young girl from Russia, first met Carl Jung in Zurich on the eve of World War I.

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Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud are known as the fathers of psychoanalysis, but they focused on different things. Freud, on the sexual underpinnings of, well, almost everything; Jung, for his mystical bent and dream theories. For years, the two were close friends and collaborators, but they had a falling-out that ultimately ended their relationship. And it turns out, there was a woman involved. Her name was Sabina Spielrein.

The stories of all three scientists are woven together in a new film. It's called "A Dangerous Method." I spoke with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and he told me that Spielrein, a young girl from Russia, first met Carl Jung in Zurich on the eve of World War I.

CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON: Although she came from a very rich family, she was such a disruptive and violent patient she got thrown out of all the private hospitals. And so the place of last resort was the Burgholzli, which sort of sits on top of a hill above Lake Zurich. And Jung was the assistant director. He was 29.


MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) Good morning. I'm Dr. Jung.

HAMPTON: And this very, very disturbed patient was brought in.


KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (as Sabina Spielrein) I'm not, I'm not mad, you know?

HAMPTON: And he decided to do something that he'd been thinking about doing for a long time, which was to try out the method described by Freud.


FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) Let me explain what I have in mind. I propose that we meet here most days to talk for an hour or two.

KNIGHTLEY: (as Sabina Spielrein) Talk?

FASSBENDER: (as Carl Jung) Yes. Just talk. See if we can identify what's troubling you.

HAMPTON: So it was a real stab in the dark or experiment for him.

MARTIN: What was it about Sabina that made Jung think that she would be receptive to Freud's method of psychoanalysis?

HAMPTON: He wanted someone who was educated, and she was very highly educated, much more highly educated than an equivalent Swiss girl, a late teenager would have been. She was extremely disturbed and she was somehow an outsider. And I think if it had been somebody who lived in Zurich, he might have been a bit more hesitant to try what was at that point an extremely radical notion that he felt was worth trying. And, of course, it was an enormous success. Within six months, she was cured, to all intents and purposes.

MARTIN: Which is interesting, because that gets to some of the central tension between Jung and Freud. Freud just believed that you couldn't actually cure people and Jung -- that was his intent. He wanted to make people better, to show them how they could be a better version of themselves.

HAMPTON: I think in the end, that's what turned out to be the fundamental divide between them. That's to say that, of course, Freud wanted to cure his patients. He just wasn't sure that this was a possibility, whereas Jung, being, you know, bushy-tailed, bright and young, wanted it to work. And if it wasn't going to work, he wanted to find something that did work.

MARTIN: It's very interesting. Another element of the strain between them becomes this idea that Jung sees other elements of psychoanalysis he wants to pursue, things that are more mystical in nature. And Freud says, no, our field is so embattled, that to stray outside of our mainstream would be to make ourselves even more vulnerable.

HAMPTON: Freud had been violently attacked, both by the medical establishment and by the journalistic fraternity of Vienna. He felt he was defending his corner.


HAMPTON: He couldn't really take dissent, so he was at fault. His vanity was at fault. And Jung also had a very, very healthy ego. So the two of them were bound to clash, really. And in a way, I was very interested that in between them was this very intelligent Russian woman who had none of those vanities, had none of that ambition to become a famous pioneer. Sabina just wanted to do the work and make people better.

MARTIN: We should mention that she does transform from being a patient to becoming, herself, a psychologist, a psychoanalyst.

HAMPTON: Her treatment was so successful that she stayed on at the University of Zurich and became a psychology student. Sabina Spielrein graduated with great distinction.

MARTIN: But she does affect both men. She has an affair with Jung. But how does she end up affecting their dynamic?

HAMPTON: Well, in a sense, she brought Freud and Jung together because Jung's first letter to Freud said: I've tried your method and it works. But then when they had an affair later on, it got back to Freud and he asked Jung about it and Jung denied that this was true and then later had to admit that it was true. And so there was a real erosion of trust between them. So in a sense, you know, Sabina Spielrein brought them together, and she was also slightly responsible for driving them apart.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Academy Award-winning writer Christopher Hampton. He wrote the screenplay for the new film "A Dangerous Method."

The film is a serious film addressing intellectually rigorous topics. But I wonder in the researching of it, did you discover any levity, a side of humor in either of these two men?

HAMPTON: Our film is intended to be slightly amusing, particularly I think this refers to the scenes between Freud and Jung where they are feeling each other out and fencing. And every single thing they say to one another has some sort of other meaning smuggled away beneath it. The first time they met, they spoke for 13 hours straight. The Jungs arrived before lunch and were shown into the dining room. Jung immediately launched into a spirited attack on the sexual theory, absolutely ignoring the fact that Freud and his wife and his sister-in-law and his six children were all sitting around the table.


MARTIN: There is something kind of oblivious about him throughout this film.

HAMPTON: Yes. He was really fixated on his work, I think. And Michael Fassbender gets a great kind of sly humor out of the fact that he had a famously large appetite. So at this lunch where he's saying all sorts of incredibly unsuitable things in front of the children, he's also eating the largest meal you've ever seen a human being get through.

MARTIN: Your characterization of Jung I found very interesting, very controlled. Even in the sexual scenes with Keira Knightley, who plays Sabina, he is this very detached, dispassionate man. Only near the end of the film do we actually see him vulnerable, emotionally exposed when she decides to leave him. Was this something that Michael Fassbender brought to the character, or did you write him this way?

HAMPTON: I think David Cronenberg had this notion that what would help the film - and I think he was right - was to present this extremely buttoned-down, repressed universe to throw into contrast more starkly the kind of outrageous ideas that were being passed between these people. So in other words, the contrast between these incredibly respectable people and the profoundly subversive ideas they were earnestly discussing, I think...

MARTIN: Because they are talking about sexual liberation and many partners and what happens in the bedroom and exploring all kinds of different aspects of sexuality.

HAMPTON: Yes, indeed, with, you know, very seriously. And as the film draws to a close, it becomes clearer and clearer the damage those repressions cause. And so at the end of the film, this extremely upright, confident, correct, Swiss bourgeois doctor is absolutely destroyed. The whole emotion that's been suppressed, really, during the whole of the film wells up in the final shots of Michael Fassbender. You can see the destructive effect of everything that's gone before, and you can see that he's about to enter a long dark night of the soul.

MARTIN: That's screenwriter Christopher Hampton. He adapted his stage play "The Talking Cure" into the film "A Dangerous Method," which is in theaters now. Christopher, thanks so much for talking with us.

HAMPTON: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.