When I first saw the trailer for A Dangerous Method, I was both excited and worried. I was excited because I had read about the professional relationship between Freud and Jung in The Denial of Death and was thrilled to see it portrayed dramatically. However, I was worried because the trailer gave me the impression that the plot would focus overwhelmingly on the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein. As it happens to be, the film focuses on the relationship, both professional and romantic, between Freud, Jung, and Spielrein and how each contributed to the development of psychoanalytic theory.
I saw the film for the first time in a small theater in Los Angeles. Whenever I tell people about the film, my husband reminds me that I was as giddy as a child on Christmas morning when I saw Freud experience his first fainting spell. Though I am far from a Freudian or a Jungian, it nevertheless was a great moment for me as a student of psychology to see this on the silver screen.
Actually, I may have enjoyed the film a little too much. Not long after viewing it, I had an erotic dream in which I merged my husband, Freud, and Viggo Mortensen into one. Also, I was physically female. Moments like these make me glad dream analysis is no longer a primary mode of psychotherapeutic inquiry.
Anyway, I digress.
Seeing the film inspired me to learn more about the film and what went into its making. A Dangerous Method was based on a stage play of the same name, which was based on an history by John Kerr called A Most Dangerous Method. (The title comes from a letter penned by William James, wherein he described psychoanalysis as a “most dangerous method.”) When I watch historical films, I frequently wonder how accurate they are and how much was creatively filled in. While the film and play leave many details out, it captures the essence of the book very well. Aspects of the sexual relationship between Jung and Spielrein were filled in. Existing letters don’t make any explicit reference to sexual intimacy but the content clearly suggest that their relationship was romantic and likely sexual. Whether they ever engaged in BDSM is not known and probably a dramatic interpretation of their relationship and its relevance to the life and death instinct theory.
Some have questioned the manner in which Jung’s personality was characterised, as shy and rather prudish, Kerr’s history is fairly consistent with the film in this respect–even down to Jung rather greedy consumption of food at Freud’s family home. This does not mean that it is entirely fair or accurate but, unfortunately, my knowledge of Jung begins and ends with Kerr’s work.
The book is considerably more detailed than the film and is roughly 512 pages long. Kerr’s narrative follows not only the careers of Spielrein, Jung, and Freud but the development of psychoanalytic theory within the psychological community at the time. Kerr paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth century, a time at which psychologists were beginning to abandon nineteenth century materialism for a psychology informed by more subjective concerns. The “talking cure,” the forerunner to what is now known simply as psychotherapy, emerged as a solution to an ever growing awareness that the aggressive curative techniques of the previous century weren’t working as well as they were supposed to. People may malign Freud and psychoanalysis now but it was an important step towards contemporary theories and techniques. It was the first time psychiatrists used conversation as a curative method. Prior to this, psychiatrists would talk to their clients primarily as a means of understanding the symptoms and for giving directions.
Kerr’s book also does something else. It verifies the important role Spielrein played in shaping the life and death instinct. At the time, women weren’t easily welcomed into the sciences and those who were have been largely forgotten. Spielrein might have been entirely forgotten if it had not been for the the discovery of her private correspondence in the 1970’s and now, with the help of historians like Kerr, we can confirm her place in the history of psychology.
A (Most) Dangerous Method is both an excellent film and book. For those who are not familiar with psychoanalytic theory, Kerr’s book might be difficult to follow, He goes into detail regarding how psychoanalytic theory developed in its early years and this could be daunting to some. In addition, the details he includes about the state of psychiatry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might come off dull but I found these details both interesting and highly rewarding overall. It is a relatively long book but one that pays the reader back in the end. For those who are not keen on reading detailed histories, I would highly recommend the film as an alternative. Otherwise, I would highly recommend both.