Many people know about the pioneering work of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, but few people know about how influential a woman named Sabina Spielrein was on both men and on the science of psychiatry. The movie “A Dangerous Method” (based on Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure”) tells the story of the relationships between these three complicated people. Hampton originally planned wrote the story as a screenplay, but it became a play first, and then Hampton rewrote his original screenplay — and the result is “A Dangerous Method.”
The movie’s story begins in 1904, when Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley) is a Russian-born patient suffering from hysteria. She is admitted to Burgholzli Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, where she is treated by Jung (played by Michael Fassbender), an ambitious doctor who has a dark side. As Spielrein’s mental health gets better, she becomes Jung’s apprentice and then his masochistic lover. Meanwhile, Freud’s mentor relationship with Jung begins to sour when Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen) finds out that married Jung is having an affair with a patient. The two men grow distant from each other, and when the relationship between Spielrein and Jung changes, she becomes closer to Freud.
“A Dangerous Method” had its North American premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Knightley, Mortensen, “A Dangerous Method” director David Cronenberg, Sarah Gadon (who plays Emma Jung, Carl Jung’s wife), Hampton and “A Dangerous Method” producer Jeremy Thomas gathered for a press conference the day of the movie’s TIFF premiere. As a joke, Knightley and Mortensen displayed Montreal Canadiens hockey jerseys before the press conference. Here is what they said at the press conference, including why they chose to display those particular jerseys.
Christopher, how did you come across this story that became the basis of you writing the play “The Talking Cure” and the movie “A Dangerous Method”?
Hampton: It’s like a Victorian novel. In the ‘70s, a suitcase was found in an attic in Geneva, which contained her [Sabina Spielrein’s] diaries and several letters to Jung and to Freud, several analytic writings that she [did]. And she disappeared because she’d been killed by the Nazis in 1942. And so it was an Italian psychoanalyst called [Aldo] Carotenuto, who wrote a book called “A Secret Symmetry,” which I came across in the ‘80s.
But the real breakthrough for me was I befriended the curator of the Jung museum at the Burgholzli Hospital in Zurich. And at a certain point he said to me, “Who is this patient you’re interested in?” I said, “Sabina Spielrein.” He said, “Do you have any idea when she was admitted?” I said, “Roughly the 17th of August, 1904.”
And he said, “I’m locking up the museum now. Come down to the basement.” And in the basement was the hospital archive. And he took a black ledger off the shelves. And it was the case notes of Sabina Spielrein, type by Jung with his handwritten remarks in the margin. It was absolute gold dust.
And I said, “But it’s all in German.” There was quite a lot of it.” And he said, “Well you’ve got a half an hour, and there’s a photocopier in the corner.” So that was the start of the whole thing for me. And one of the things I wanted to do was bring her back into prominence, really, because she was a remarkable woman who had an exemplary career and actually had a lot of input into the ideas of both Jung and Freud. So that was one of the initial motives for writing the thing in the first place.
Keira, did you do any kind of research for your role in “A Dangerous Method?”
Knightley: Yes. As soon as I knew I was going to play the part, I phoned Christopher [Hampton], and I said, “Help.” And he said, “All right. Come around.” I thought he was going to give me a talk for a couple of hours, and I’d take notes, which he did, but he also handed me a pile of books … and said, “Read all of those. It’s somewhere in there.”
So I did that, and I found a translation of the diaries and Jung’s notes, which were very helpful. And then I spoke to a couple of analysts as well, just to get an idea from them of what exactly hysteria was and where it would come from.
Have any of you on the panel considered seeking psychiatric help after doing “A Dangerous Method”?
Mortensen: I just go back to work with David, and he kind of firms up all my neuroses. He gets them all fit and ready to go out and do damage. Yes?
Cronenberg: Yes. [He laughs.]
Viggo, what do you personally think about Freud’s theories?
Mortensen: I would say that I think in the hands of another director who was less assured, less knowledgeable, less well-read about the subject about both Freud and Jung and Spielrein, it would have been a very dull movie, I think — and someone who felt the pressure all the time of making an important movie about an important subject. And I think the best thing David did, which what I experienced with him always is that he instills confidence by creating a calm, professional atmosphere on the set. He gets you under his spell and creates the illusion that there’s plenty of time, no pressure, and it’s all going to work out.
I think that the movie works because it doesn’t get bogged down in trying to be academic. It is academic. It’s well-researched and based on the work about Spielrein and Freud and Jung, using the letters largely between them. Christopher wrote an excellent script. The academic value is there.
The purpose is to tell an entertaining story in the end, a movie that is fun to watch. It’s interesting to watch. It makes you want to learn more about maybe the period and about these people. And that’s what I focused on. I think there’s plenty of material here, if you’re a fanatical follower of Jung, to be upset about and maybe to be slightly pleased about. And the same for followers of Freud and those who wanted to see Spielrein vindicated.
But that’s not really the most important thing. That’s not what I took from the experience of shooting it, as much as I enjoy doing the research. In the end, it wasn’t about academic differences. It was about personality differences and misunderstandings, things that can happen anywhere at any time. That’s what’s dramatically interesting about it, so I’m just going to dodge the question. [He laughs.]
Keira, what was the challenge for you in portraying Sabina Spielrein?
Knightley: I think that it was a really challenging role. I think it’s one of the reasons I wanted to play her, because I didn’t know who she was. I think very often when you play characters, there are certain threads that link you. Emotionally, you can understand what the person went through. For this one, I had no frame of reference, but that what was fascinating and exciting about it.
So it really was a question of trying to find logic within what was perceived from the outside to be madness. As much as she knew she was ill, there were logical reasons within her for the way she behaved. It was really trying to understand exactly what that logic was, and then find out from the inside and build her up. With the help of David here, we managed to craft something together. And it was a very exciting process.
This is a fashion/beauty question for Keira. You’ve been in movies that take place in different eras. Is there any particular era that is your favorite, where you might think, “I could really spend some time looking like this in real life?”
Knightely: No. [She laughs.] No, not really. I find it a very exciting part of my job: to look at the different styles from different centuries. Part of creating a character, I love working with wonderful costume designers, like we had on this [“A Dangerous Method”] with Denise Cronenberg, who did such a wonderful job creating those dresses. Finding a character through clothes and through the hair and makeup is always a fascinating part of my job.
Viggo and Keira, do you have anyone you turn to in your personal lives for advice and feedback about your work?
Mortensen: Someone I can talk to?
Knightley: Do you mean do I have people who give me opinions on my work, whose opinions I really value? Yes. Who are they? It’s definitely a secret. [She laughs.]
Keira, do you think acting is like therapy? What keeps you grounded?
Knightley: I don’t know what keeps me grounded. Acting is therapy, yes, I think a lot of people do say that they use acting as therapy. I don’t really go for that. I think [acting] is incredibly cathartic, particularly playing a role like this. I think it’s almost strange what a wonderful time we had making this film. Particularly, my character is very dark.
It seems almost perverse that we had such a wonderful, fun time outside that. But I think partly it’s due to the fact that you’re going to these incredibly dark places, you’re trying to think about that, and it all comes out in that direction. And then afterwards, you leave it and go and watch soccer and have a beer and have a really nice time.
Mortensen: In principle, at least the way I read it, the most positive aspect of what Freud had a role in fathering and pioneering was the idea of listening to people in a particular way. Why I say “positive” is I think it’s one of the most loving things you can do: just to listen to somebody. In principle, the idea was that you’re listening to someone confess without judging then. You are, of course, going to judge them n some way, but the person that’s being listened to, they’re not being listened to by a family member or someone who has some emotional stake in what you’re telling them.
They’re just listening, whether it’s parent, child or friend or lovers or ambassadors at the UN [United Nations]. If you listen, first of all, it means you’re showing some interest in what’s going on with them and not just what’s going on with you or your country or your interests. It depends on how you approach acting.
But to me, the best acting and the best directing comes from that. You can prepare everything as much as you want. But in the end, when you get there, the foundation of good acting is really listening, even if you have a lot of dialogue. Unless you’re just talking to yourself, well, you’re just listening to yourself, I guess. But just take that first step and listen and see where that takes you, no matter what you’ve planned. It’s positive, I think. I like that aspect of the story we were telling as well.
Can you talk about the character of Emma Jung, Carl Jung’s wife?
Hampton: She’s a really interesting character, Mrs. Jung, and overlooked a good deal by people even who write biographies of Jung. I think she must have been extraordinary. I think the women in this film are both extraordinary characters. She put up with an enormous amount, and she supported him, and looked after him all his life.
When the film ends, he’s about to go into a five-year nervous breakdown. She saw him through all of that. She gave him five children. And I think she’s a really interesting character. If I had to do it again, I might have spent more time on her.
Gadon: I think she was the foundation of his home, that’s for sure. I think it’s interesting that often people interpret my character as submissive … but when I was approaching the character, I never thought of her in that way, ever. I thought she was more so the archetypal artist’s wife, in terms of her support and her interest in his work. And so I think that’s what I tried to express in the character throughout the film.
Cronenberg: She [Emma Jung] wrote an academic book and became an analyst as well. This is something that we can’t really deal with in the movie. It seems like anyone who came in contact with psychoanalysis in those days ended up being an analyst instead of a patient. It was an incredibly attractive, magnetic profession that hadn’t existed before and was suddenly accessible to people that I don’t think would have thought of themselves as being a healer or a physician.
Keira, why did you and Viggo bring the Guy Lefeur hockey jerseys to this press conference?
Knightley: I actually have to admit that I have no idea what the jersey is that I was wearing earlier. He [she points to Mortensen] told me that it would wind David up, so we decided it would be a good idea. It did wind you up.
Mortensen: I gave her thorough coaching backstage.
Knightley: Thorough coaching. Something about a blond demon. I don’t know what that means. [Mortensen claps.]
Cronenberg: I told her it was a very perverse thing to do, to wear that jersey here. And that didn’t seem to bother her.
Viggo and David, how has your relationship as an actor and as a director evolved over the years?
Mortensen: [He says jokingly] I think we’re done, aren’t we?
Cronenberg: [He says jokingly] Yeah. This is the last straw. I basically just say “action” and “cut.” I don’t really say anything else.
Mortensen: He goes for a coffee and comes back.
Cronenberg: I come back and ask, “Is he finished? OK.”
Christopher, you originally wrote this story as a movie script before it was a play. At what point did David Cronenberg contact you to write the screenplay for “A Dangerous Method”?
Hampton: He contacted me, having read the play, and not knowing that it had started life as a movie script. And it’s interesting because the final film resembles the play more than the original screenplay in which I hadn’t really managed to focus it properly, I think.
Cronenberg: Yeah, ultimately, we had the play. And then to my surprise, I discovered there was actually a screenplay that existed. We had that material and also different research. Over a period of time, I think Christopher had re-thought a lot of what he had done. And so he wrote another screenplay, and we sort of just worked from that. We didn’t really look back at any of the other things.
Mortensen: One of the things I like a lot about the play and the screenplay is that neither Christopher nor David in executing or shooting the story tried to make up for or alter the realities of the time period, in terms of they didn’t try to make these men less vain. They didn’t try to make them more liberated in their thinking toward women. You can’t separate them from their times, but it is remarkable what they were thinking about, what they originated in their time. But they are, as we all are, products of their time.
And the character of Sabina, she was given some credit by Freud. He could have given her a lot more credit and could have understood her better. But I think his being a man in that time, I think his ego got in the way of that, because he was capable of understanding her better. He certainly made use of her ideas to some degree, but he did give her a footnote. Jung didn’t give her any. [He laughs.]
But I think it was not just their personalities but … it was also that time. Men were men. And women … it was unusual that Sabina was doing this line of work. [She was] extraordinarily intelligent, precocious, whatever you want to call it, but not a man.
And also, Mrs. Jung, talk about listening: She was very astute. I think that comes across in the movie. She really watched and listened, and was probably a much better listener than either Freud or Jung. She didn’t let her ego get in the way. Both of them [Freud and Jung] did. I like the fact that you didn’t varnish over that; you didn’t remove the [character] flaws in making a movie from the script.
Cronenberg: For me, one of the attractions of doing a biopic is resurrection. You’re really trying to bring these people back to life, because you like to see them in action. You like to be alive. And to do that in any satisfying way, you have to faithful to what they really were and not try to idealize them or, on the other hand, attack them. We had no agenda, really.
There’s a built-in, feminist aspect to the story, because of what Sabina was and because of the repression of women at the time. In fact, hysteria, which is what she suffers from in the beginning of the movie, the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word that means “uterus.” It was meant to be a disease of women. It actually doesn’t exist anymore, but it came out of the repression of women’s sexuality and other things at the time. So in resurrecting the people, you also have to resurrect the times in which they existed, which is part of the fun that we had.
Hampton: And I always work from the principle that what really happened is bound to be more interesting than anything you can invent. So the work was really to delve into what really happened between these three, four people. There’s nothing invented in the film at all. From the moment that I found those case notes to the time we made the film, the work was really to try to keep it as accurate as possible … to see how what they did would illuminate the subject.
Keira, since “A Dangerous Method” was made by a Canadian director, do you find that you’re able to have more range in movies that are from Canadian filmmakers?
Knightley: I think I’ve been incredibly lucky with the parts that I’ve played, wherever they’ve come from, whether they’ve been Canadian or American or English or anything. It’s about stories. Obviously, you have great talent here [in Canada]. I mean, the opportunity to work with David Cronenberg is one that any actor would jump at. But no, I don’t necessarily know that there’s a national thing going on.
Cronenberg: Yeah, well, you wore that jersey. That’s a very Canadian thing. I mean, it’s a subversive …
Knightley: Yeah, I’m going to be huge in Montreal after this.
Jeremy, what differences have you noticed in the way films are made in different countries?
Thomas: What you don’t know what the camera doesn’t see. Films are made with a group of talented artists together. Canada has such a healthy film business because it’s graded in an ambiance where you can make films with freedom. And there’s an economy here.
So in this particular film— and I can see two of my partners here: Marco [Mehlitz] and Marty [Katz, who are co-producers of “A Dangerous Method”] — we worked on a film and brought together various systems of financing. They were expedient in one way, but of course, I love working in Canada. It’s a very good place to shoot movies.
In fact, this movie was prepared in Canada, and shot in Europe, mainly, and then post-produced in Canada. So it was a lucky co-production. It was a group effort from all of us.
Keira, do you think you’ll ever do another “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie? And what did you think about Penélope Cruz in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”?
Knightley: No, I don’t think I will do any more. I said after the second one that that was going to be it, in terms of the three [“Pirates of the Caribbean” movies that I did]. I haven’t seen [“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”]. I’m sure it’s wonderful. I think Penélope Cruz is a wonderful actress.
For more info: “A Dangerous Method” website
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