“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…”
Seventy-two years after his death in London at age 83, Sigmund Freud, the quintessential Viennese Jew, is suddenly hot again. This column will focus on three recent films; a related column by JUF News editor Cindy Sher will discuss the new play Freud’s Last Session (currently on stage at the Mercury Theatre on Southport).
Mahler on the Couch, coming to our Gene Siskel Film Center on State Street for a one-week run from April 27 to May 3, is a brilliant evocation of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.
Basing their screenplay on one page in Ernest Jones’ mammoth three-volume biography of Freud describing a meeting between Freud and composer Gustav Mahler, German director Percy Adlon and his son Felix have created an aural and visual delight that simultaneously enlarged my mind and broke my heart.
The performers, Johannes Silberschneider as “Mahler,” Karl Markovics (best known for his lead role in the Oscar-winning Austrian film The Counterfeiters) as “Freud,” and newcomer Barbara Romaner as “Alma” (married first to Mahler, then to architect Walter Gropius, and finally to novelist Franz Werfel), are all extraordinary.
“That it happened is fact. How it happened is fiction,” say the Adlons. Indeed! Do not wait for DVD; this beautiful film deserves to be seen on the biggest possible screen.
For tickets call (312) 846-2085 or visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org.
Tzivi’s DVD Collection
One of our biggest disappointments at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival last October was David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which he adapted for the screen with Christopher Hampton. (Hampton, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, had based his 2002 stage play The Talking Cure on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein.)
My husband Rich and I went in knowing a fair amount of psychoanalytic theory, having studied both men in graduate school and beyond, but the name Sabina Spielrein was new to us. Sadly, we found the film dull, pretentious, and egregiously miscast.
Keira Knightly fails utterly as “Spielrein,” a Jewish teen from a wealthy Russian family sent to Switzerland at the dawn of the 20th Century in hopes that young “Carl Jung” (Michael Fassbender) can use the new techniques of “Sigmund Freud” (Viggo Mortensen) to cure her hysterical outbursts. (Note that “hysteria” was a common diagnosis at that time for women who acted out.)
While Howard Shore’s Wagner riffs (heavy on the Siegfried) boom in the background, Spielrein and Jung conduct a ludicrous love affair, until Spielrein tattles, leading Freud to puff away on his cigar while musing thoughtfully about countertransference. Most surprising for a Cronenberg film, the silly spanking scenes are totally devoid of erotic energy, and none of the goings-on have any hint of frisson.
Now I have loved Viggo Mortensen (best known as the heroic knight “Aragorn” in The Lord of the Ringstrilogy) in many films (most notably Good, A History of Violence, and A Walk on the Moon). But when he turned to the equally Nordic Knightly and said, with utmost sincerity: “My dear, we are Jews!” well, I started giggling and could not regain my composure until rolling credits finally released me.
You would never guess it from A Dangerous Method, but Sabina Spielrein was, in fact, a tremendously interesting and important historical figure in her own right, especially once she was finally liberated from her doomed relationship with Jung.
The details of her adult life (including her work in child psychiatry at the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Geneva when Jean Piaget was a student and her research on language development after returning to the Soviet Union in the mid-20s) are well-presented in Elisabeth Marton’s 2002 docudrama My Name was Sabina Spielrein.
Marton makes extensive use of a treasure trove of letters discovered in Switzerland in 1977. With voice-over readings and judicious reconstruction of key scenes with live actors, Marton traces Spielrein’s life from the time she arrived at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich in 1904 until her death in 1942 (when Nazi soldiers devastated the Jewish community of Rostov-on-Don during their siege of Stalingrad).
Released on DVD by Chicago’s own Facets Multimedia, My Name was Sabina Spielrein can be rented from Facets and Netflix or streamed on MovieBerry.com.
Returning to the 21st Century
Just as this column was about to go to press, I learned that Frank Rich (longtime New York Times drama critic turned political pundit) will do a special program at Steppenwolf Theatre on Halsted on Monday May 7. For tickets, call (312) 335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org. Meanwhile consult my blog for additional details.