David Cronenberg on ‘A Dangerous Method,’ S & M and The Birth of Psychoanalysis [VIDEO]

Last week I conducted a question-and-answer session with filmmaker David Cronenberg about his new period drama, “A Dangerous Method,” which spotlights the “intellectual ménage a trios” between Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein, Jung’s troubled but brilliant Russan Jewish patient who would herself become a pioneering psychoanalyst before dying in the Holocaust.  My cover story on Cronenberg will be published in the Journal’s holiday preview on Nov. 23, the same day “Method” hits theaters.

After a screening at Laemmle’s Music Hall – sponsored by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and organized by the fest’s fabulous founder, Hilary Helstein – Cronenberg and I discussed how he discovered the material; just how much the story drew on facts; how important Spielrein’s Jewishness was in her relationship with Jung; and whether it’s true that Jung and Spielrein really did have a sexual relationship – and a sadomasochistic one, as depicted in the film. 

Cronenberg (“The Fly,” “Eastern Promises”), who was affable and energetic despite just having flown in from his Toronto home, answered these questions (and more) in his cerebral and droll fashion.  First off, he said, he came to the material when actor Ralph Fiennes, the star of his film, “Spider,” portrayed Jung in Christopher Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure,” about the aforementioned “intellectual ménage a trios.”  In the play, the characters’ dialogue is taken verbatim from letters and journals written by the real analysts during the nascent years of psychoanalysis in the early 20th century.  In fact, Hampton, who is also the film’s screenwriter, wrote the play after a box containing Sabina’s diaries and assorted letters was discovered in a basement in Geneva in 1977.

While some still dispute whether Jung had any kind of sexual relationship with Spielrein, Sabina wrote in some of that material that “‘Jung took my maidenhood,’ which in Victorian times meant something very specific – it meant that he had taken her virginity,” Cronenberg said at the Q & A.  In the film, their affair takes on S & M tones as Jung (Michael Fassbender) beats a bound, prone Spielrein (Keira Knightley) with his belt.

“Sabina’s Jewishness is tremendously important for both her and Jung,” Cronenberg said of their affair.  The patient and her analyst bonded, in part, over their shared love of Wagnerian opera and mythology – particularly the myth in which the hero Siegfried is born out of a forbidden, incestuous tryst.  Sabina had Siegfried fantasies revolving around Jung—the idea that their secret, sinful relationship would yield this Germanic progeny, the director said.

Of the sadomasochistic scenes, Cronenberg said, “I defend them but I can’t prove them.”  Rather, Cronenberg deduced the nature of the relationship from words the real analysts wrote in their own notes and to each other.  In real life, as in the film, Spielrein had become Jung’s patient while suffering from a violent mental illness – a Victorian condition known as hysteria; Jung cured her, using Freud’s “talking cure,” by causing her to realize that her symptoms were caused by guilt over the sexual pleasure she had felt as a child when her father spanked her naked bottom.  Humiliation still excited the adult Spielrein.

All this was in Jung’s case file on Sabina, which Hampton read in German during his visit to the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital where the then 18-year-old Spielrein had become Jung’s patient in 1904.  In his notes, Jung described the teenager as “voluptuous” and “oriental.” 

Another clue to the S & M relationship came in letters from Jung’s depraved patient and fellow analyst Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), querying why the good doctor didn’t just take Sabina somewhere and “thrash” ther.  “Gross was saying, ‘That’s what she wants.  Why don’t you just give it to her?’” Cronenberg recounted of Gross’s advice.  “And Jung replied, ‘Pleasure is never simple.’ These were real exchanges as embedded in letters sent back and forth.”

Below is a videotaped interview I conducted with Cronenberg at the Regent Beverly Wilshire recently; video is edited by Jeffrey Hensiek

During my previous interviews with Cronenberg for our holiday preview, the filmmaker elaborated on the sequences in which Fassbender beats Knightley:  “You can see that Jung is not really enjoying himself; he is not a sadist, he’s doing this for Sabina,” the director said.  “That’s love – and you could also say it’s also part of her therapy.”

So it was therapeutic for Sabina to have her masochism validated in a physical way?  “Absolutely,” Cronenberg said. “It’s funny,” he added, “but a woman with the Hollywood foreign press once said to me, ‘Mr. Cronenberg, in the scene where Sabina is sitting on the couch [after a round of spanking], her nipple is visible above her corset, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  Did you do this on purpose?’  And I told her, ‘Well, of course, but let me explain why.  At that point in the film, Sabina is really gathering strength at all levels, including within her relationship with Jung, and she is no longer apologetic about her masochistic sexual tendencies.  She is not afraid to sit there wearing nothing but a corset, which we can regard as a kind of bondage device; although it was a normal corset, it’s sort of saying that the normal corsets of the time were bondage devices for women.  So of course [leaving the nipple in] was deliberate, because there are many ways we could have gotten rid of that nipple if we had wanted to.’”

Were the sex scenes difficult for Cronenberg to shoot?  “Not for me,” he quipped.  “But I do think those scenes were difficult for Keira. We had a very forthright discussion, and I explained to her that it’s a legitimate concern for an actor to say, ‘OK, where’s the camera going to be,’ so we just talked about it and by the time we were finished she was confident that she could do it in the way I was suggesting—that the scenes would be relatively clinical and simple and discreet, even though she is somewhat topless and so on. 

Understand, though, that I felt at a certain point this all has to do with that intriguing relationship between the doctor and the patient in psychoanalysis…I think that at a certain point, Spielrein used her sexual masochism to seduce Jung; that he was intrigued by it, and that it gave her a chance to talk about being sexually aroused.  To me, that was part of her seduction of Jung, and therefore I think it would also have played out when they had sex. I have no proof of that, and I admit that, but I think that’s legitimately close because of all the words that were written.”

For more information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit www.lajfilmfest.org/.