Keira Knightley on (early 20th Century) Jews and Aryans in Love

Keira Knightley phoned me on a rare day off from shooting her next film, “Anna Karenina,” to discuss her portrayal of a very different kind of fraught heroine in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” now in theaters. In this period drama based on true events, Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish patient of Carl Jung’s who goes on to become his lover as well as a pioneering psychoanalyst with distinct theories on sex and death. 

In bright, chipper tones, the 26-year-old actress – who has moved from “Pirates of the Caribbean” blockbusters to stellar performances in films such as “Atonement” and “The Duchess”– spoke about her initial reluctance to take on her “Method” role, which has gleaned some Oscar buzz.  The movie, which revolves around the “intellectual ménage a trios” between Spielrein, Jung and Sigmund Freud in the early years of psychoanalysis, opens as Spielrein screams uncontrollably.  She laughs and writhes, her face a mass of grotesque ticks, as she is forcibly carried into the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital in Geneva, where her first words to Jung are, “I’m not mad, you know.”

As Jung tests Freud’s “talking cure” on Sabina, Knightley’s jaw juts impossibly forward as she chokes out the source of her “hysteria:” guilt over the childhood sexual pleasure she felt when her father spanked her naked bottom.  In the film – based on Christopher Hampton’s play, “The Talking Cure”—Spielrein’s predilection for humiliation extends to the bedroom, requiring Knightley to perform scenes in which Jung (Michael Fassbender) beats her with his belt as she is tied to a bed, half-naked in her corset, all the while gazing at herself in a mirror. 

Knightley was so freaked out by the S & M scenes that she filmed them only after fortifying herself with vodka:  “That just isn’t my cup of tea,” the British actress said of the sadomasochistic sex. “At first, I really didn’t understand my character,” Knightley added of Spielrein.  “I really needed to research exactly what hysteria andd sadomasochism was, and figure out where that came from for her.  And how Jung’s and Freud’s treatment helped pull her out of that.”

Here are further excerpts from my interview with Knightley, in which she discusses how she prepared for the role, her four months of research, how Sabina’s Jewishness plays out in the film, and more. 

NPM:  So many scripts come your way.  What was it about “A Dangerous Method” and the character of Sabina Spielrein that intrigued you?

KK:  I was just fascinated because I’d never heard of her.  And I was riveted by the role that she played in the lives of Freud and Jung – both in their coming together and their eventual, explosive rift.  And also the birth of psychoanalysis; the fact that it was such a revolution, affecting the way we think about each other, and how we think about ourselves.  It was all affected by the thoughts and writings of these three people.

I found Sabina incredibly inspiring; you’ve got this person who was totally trapped within herself and literally had been thrown out of two other institutions before Burgholzli because they couldn’t handle her.  They said there was no way she was ever going to be functional within society.  So the idea that through therapy, she could recover to a point where she was not only functional, but could create ideas that inspired Freud and Jung, is extraordinary.

NPM:  You’ve said that you were hesitant to take on the film because of the sex scenes.  What changed your mind?

KK:  Even when I wasn’t sure I would do the film because of them, I always thought they were necessary.  I never thought they were gratuitous. When David said he didn’t want them to be titillating or sexy in any way, but rather gruesome and quite clinical, I went ‘OK, that makes sense.’  I think they’re necessary because it’s important visually to see what Sabina was going through, what she wanted, and how that kind of brutality was necessary for her.  It was such a huge part of her personality, and of her illness; what she was living with and what she was overcoming.  And in terms of her relationship with Jung– it turned into a huge part of his character as well.

NPM:  David Cronenberg told me the S & M mapped well over the relationship between Jews and Aryans of the time.  In one scene, Freud even warns Sabina to distrust Jung – to “not put your trust in Aryans.”  It’s the scene where Freud nails Spielrein’s so-called “Siegfried” fantasies as “delusional:”  Her idea that as in Wagnerian opera, she would bear a blond, Germanic hero out of sin—in her case, the sin would be the Jew mating with the Aryan, and a married Aryan at that.

KK:  Sabina’s Siegfried fantasy was quite interesting…Quite often she talked about the child she was going to have with Jung – a child she saw as somebody, in her words, who would unite the Jewish and Aryan races in a mythic sort of way. That was obviously hugely important to her. 

Freud telling her, “Remember we’re Jews,” and the idea that Jung was something completely different, was also a huge part of the [dynamic].  They were living in very difficult times; Freud was ostracized in many circles because he was Jewish, and he was looking for Jung to be this Christian kind of leader of psychoanalysis so that people would find it more palatable, which is an extraordinarily weird concept to me.  But obviously it was a huge part of the world they were living in.

NPM:  In one of the last scenes in the movie, your character is pregnant and married to another man – a man she tells Jung, with some emphasis, is a Russian Jew.  Do you think she is taking a dig at Jung by emphasizing her husband’s Jewishness?

KK:  Yes, I think she is being provocative; she is pushing him, pointing out the difference between Jung and her husband, saying she is going back to ‘her own,’ if you will.

NPM:  What was most helpful for you in understanding your character?

KK:  I found that bit really difficult.  I think quite often when you play characters, you say, ‘Oh yes, I understand her on some emotional level.’  But with this one I really didn’t, particularly the sadomasochistic side of Sabina.  So I spoke to analysts about exactly where that comes from, and what kind of behavior that creates in people.  I think the biggest thing was the idea that even though Sabina was a masochist, there was also a sadistic side to her personality; it’s like a circle. Sabina was constantly looking for a sadist to fulfill her masochistic side, and sometimes she, herself, could be sadistic in order to push someone into that role, in a way that is quite manipulative.  It’s the idea that the masochist doesn’t always have to be the victim, but can also be the one who is quite powerful as well.  That was an interesting concept, because it’s something I’d never really thought about before.

NPM: Did Sabina push Jung into being the sadist in the relationship?

KK:  Yes, I think in some ways, there was that level of manipulation.  What Sabina was looking for was somebody to fulfill the role of her father – the father she both hated and loved at the same time, and who had played the sadistic role in her life. Sabina does push Jung into that, so I think the idea for the sadomasochistic sex would have come from her; it would have been her thing.

NPM:  In your discussion with analysts, did you come to believe that Sabina’s hysteria and her masochism were caused by the same childhood trauma?

KK:  Yes, I think it was all about her early childhood; when her father spanked her and in the particular way that he did.  Sabina was made to strip in front of him and then she was bent over and spanked.  I believe this took place until the beginning of her adolescence; she began to be turned on by it, and then because she conceived this as the way that love was shown—but also was disgusted by it since sex at that time was perceived as sinful—she thought of herself as completely disgusting and revolting.  So all this was tied up within her.

If you look into Sabina’s father, he was quite a massive depressive and was constantly threatening suicide, while her mother was incredibly high-strung and quite difficult as well. I think this all combined to create a point where Sabina just couldn’t cope with the world anymore, and so the hysteria started, and the sadomasochism and quite a lot of masturbation.  When you read about all of Sabina’s hysteria symptoms, it’s even more extraordinary that she managed to achieve all that she did.

NPM: When Sabina finally blurts out to Jung, during a psychoanalytic session, that she was aroused by her father’s beatings, your character struggles with facial ticks, especially a grotesque kind of chin-jutting that prevents her from speaking.  She is clearly struggling to release the words.  What was your internal preparation for this sequence?

KK:  It was just trying to understand Sabina, so again, it was through a lot of reading and talking to analysts and trying to choose exactly what the most difficult words would be for her to say – the ones that would provoke and trigger her ticks.  Also, what Sabina would see [internally] while flashing back to her childhood memories; it was getting all that clear.

NPM:  The chin tick looked painful.

KK:  It wasn’t particularly pleasant to do, but no, it didn’t hurt.

NPM:  “A Dangerous Method” covers just the early years of psychoanalysis; it’s only in the film’s written epilogue that we learn Sabina became a renowned child analyst in Russia before an SS squad herded her and her two daughters into the street and shot them in 1942.  When you’re playing a historical character with this kind of fate, do you have to distance yourself from that as an actress?

KK:  Yes, totally.  Of course I know what happened to Sabina, but you can’t play the role with that in mind, because she herself doesn’t know it at that point.  She has no concept of what the future holds.  And in fact, a lot of her future was amazing – like when she first returned to Russia and she opened The White Nursery [her child facility] and she managed to accomplish amazing things.  And then obviously she had the most horrific ending ever.  But if you play the role with a sense of doom, then it becomes a very different performance, so I didn’t play it with that in mind.