Author: Christopher Hampton
Writer’s Potential: 6
In the early 1900s, Carl Jung’s working relationship with Sigmund Freud is jeopardized by Jung’s love affair with a patient.
In 1904, 19-year-old SABINA SPIELREIN is brought to a hospital in Zurich by her abusive father. DR. CARL JUNG (29) introduces himself to her. He explains that he’d like to come to her room and talk to her each day for an hour or two. Sabina is confused by this treatment. Jung asks her a series of questions that dig into her feelings of humiliation and how they relate to her father beating her as a child. She starts to break down and clams up. Jung tells his wife, EMMA (22 and pregnant), that he thinks he’s found a prime candidate for the experimental “talking cure” treatment. In another session, Sabina tells Jung about her mother’s lack of love for her father. Jung politely tells her he must leave for a few weeks for mandatory military service. Sabina responds with rage, a complete 180 from her somber but polite talking. While he’s gone, Sabina escapes the hospital. She’s found, wet and covered in mud, and brought back by a team of orderlies, struggling the whole time. Later, Jung returns and hires her as his assistant. She’s ecstatic.
Sabina takes notes as Jung performs a word-association exercise with Emma. After, Jung asks for observations, and Sabina tells him Emma is ambivalent about motherhood and afraid her husband will lose interest in her—and that she’s Jung’s husband. Jung is surprised and impressed by her insight. Emma has the baby, a girl. She apologizes to Jung for not giving him a boy. Jung doesn’t seem to care. During an analysis session with Sabina, Jung goads her into talking about her father beating her. She explained that it became a ritualized thing, starting at the age of four, where she had to go into a small room and remove her clothes for her father to beat her. It started to excite her, sexually. It reached a point where she’d get aroused when he’d beat her brothers, or when she faced any sort of humiliation. Sabina breaks down, wailing that there’s no hope for her.
Two years later, Jung visits SIGMUND FREUD (50) in Vienna for the first time. After corresponding for so long, they know each others’ case work and theories well. They find themselves challenged by one another, particularly because Jung downplays the importance of sex while Freud believes it motivates everything a person thinks and feels. When Jung returns to Zurich, he praises Freud to Sabina but admits concern that Freud is so persuasive, even his more dubious ideas seem believable. Sabina asks how Jung feels about Wagner, then begins talking about his interpretation of the Siegfried myth, which shocks Jung, because he’d just begun work on a paper about Wagner’s Siegfried interpretation. Jung invites her to see one of Wagner’s operas, saying Emma doesn’t have much interest. Freud writes to Jung, asking him to hire a protégée temporarily, until Freud is able to hire the man himself. OTTO GROSS (30, cocaine addict), who has to live in the shadow of a father who invented modern forensic science, comes to work for Jung and also undergo analysis by him. Gross has some theories Jung considers radical (including a disdain for monogamy), and they immediately disagree on virtually everything—though Jung is intrigued.
Jung and Sabina perform a test on subjects’ reaction to Die Walküre. They play the opera on a phonograph and observe facial changes, taking copious notes. Afterward, Sabina draws an analogy to Wagner’s theme that perfection can only be attained through sin. When Jung argues with her, she kisses him. Jung backs off, but Sabina is undaunted: she points out where she lives and tells him she’ll be there when he’s ready. Gross is shocked to learn Jung has never slept with a patient. His feeling is that if it’ll make her happy and free her from her worries, it’s in Jung’s best interest as a doctor to do as she asks. The more he talks to Gross, the more Jung buys into his point of view. He worries about Gross’s ability to “seduce” him. One day, Gross disappears, leaving a note instructing Jung to tell his father he died. Jung immediately goes to Sabina’s apartment and deflowers her. He immediately feels guilty because Emma (pregnant yet again) has spent a great deal of time and expense having a sailboat and jetty built for Jung. He gripes about it to Sabina, who feels the best solution is to approach Sabina in a different way: she wants him to punish her sexually.
Emma is thrilled to finally give birth to a boy. Emma implies she knows something is going on, and she hopes the birth of their son will bring Jung back to the family. Instead, Jung starts sleeping with Sabina on his new sailboat. A year later, Jung visits Freud in Vienna. Freud gripes about Gross’s addiction ruining their movement. Freud also worries that Jung’s preoccupation with more superstitious means of understanding the world, such as telepathy and alchemy, will undermine the movement. He believes their findings should be rooted in the scientific method. Jung doesn’t disagree, but he sees no harm in studying “superstition” through scientific means. This starts to cause a rift between them. When Jung insists the surprise cracking of Freud’s bookshelf is something he predicted psychically, Freud dismisses it. Freud returns to Zurich with Jung, surprised and impressed with his methods. Freud lets Jung know that a rumor is circulating in Vienna that Jung is sleeping with a patient. Jung denies it, and Freud believes him.
Jung promptly breaks it off with Sabina. When Freud leaves, Emma admits she knew about the affair, wrote anonymous letters telling people, and wonders if Freud mentioned it. Jung is shocked. Sabina comes to Jung’s office, demanding to know why she won’t see him. Jung tries to explain his feelings, but Sabina wants him back. She gets violent, so Jung sends her away. Sabina writes a letter to Freud, outlining her affair with Jung in detail. Freud writes Jung to ask about it. Once again, Jung denies it, assuming she’s spreading rumors as revenge for his rebuffing her advances. Freud sends a scathing letter to Sabina admonishing her for spreading lies. Jung is asked to leave the hospital as a result of the rumors. Sabina visits him as he’s packing to leave, angry about the letter she received from Freud. She demands that Jung write and tell him the truth—because she wants to start seeing Freud as a patient. When Jung refuses him, Sabina implies that she can and will make life worse for Jung. He writes a letter, coming clean with Freud.
Freud, Jung, and another psychologist sail to the U.S. to spread the word about their theories. On the boat trip there, Jung is surprised to find Freud treating him coldly. Freud radically interprets one of Jung’s dreams to make it very insulting to Freud himself, then refuses to tell Jung one of his own dream, so as not to “risk [his] authority.” Jung is shocked and insulted. Two years later, Sabina returns to Jung to have him edit her dissertation. Jung is quietly satisfied to discover that Sabina’s theories on psychoanalysis run contrary to Freud’s and closer to his own. They have sex again, after which Sabina admits she’s leaving Zurich after she graduates. Two years later, she is hired by Freud to take on some of his pateitns. After a lecture, Jung and Freud have a vicious disagreement about monotheism stemming from patricidal urges. Later, Jung writes Freud a vicious letter chastising the man for treating friends like patients and bullying them. Freud politely writes back that Jung is nuts, and they won’t lose much by severing their tattered relationship. It seems a difficult decision for Freud, especially when Jung writes back in agreement.
A year later, Emma and Sabina meet for the first time. It’s awkward, especially since Sabina is married and pregnant. Emma pleads for help, because Jung has become sullen and withdrawn since the collapse of his relationship with Freud. Sabina doesn’t believe Emma—until she sees Jung, worse for wear. Sabina tells Jung she and her husband plan to return to Russia, where she’ll practice psychoanalysis at a Soviet hospital. Still angry that she chose Freud’s side, Jung is happy that she’s leaving Vienna. Sabina tries to make him realize it’s not about choosing sides, but Jung complains about Freud’s narrow-minded perspective. Jung admits he has a new mistress, who is very similar to Sabina. He sadly tells her that the baby she’s carrying should be his, and with that, she leaves to catch her train.
Closing titles explain that Freud was driven out of Vienna by the Nazis and died of cancer in London in 1939; Sabina returned to Russia to train Soviet analysts and practice in her hometown, before the Nazis occupied it and killed her in 1941; and Jung suffered a prolonged breakdown during World War I, after which he emerged as the world’s leading psychologist. He outlived Emma and his new mistress, dying in 1961.
A Dangerous Method tells an interesting story in a fairly dull way. While most of the characters have a fair amount of depth, Jung himself remains an enigma throughout the script. Worse than that, the characters don’t do much more than have long, circular conversations—and although the dialogue is fairly good, it’s not good enough to be the driving force of this story. As written, it merits a pass.
The story focuses primarily on two relationships: Jung and Sabina, and Jung and Freud. The first act gives an introduction to Sabina and allows her backstory to come out via long analysis sessions. However, Jung remains a dashing, intelligent enigma throughout. The writer shows some of his home life, mainly to set up domestic issues with Emma that will pay off later, but it’s never clear what’s really motivating him or why psychoanalysis has become his field of choice. All that’s ever clear are his passionate feelings about the subject of psychoanalysis, to the detriment of the script.
The second act sets up the affair with Sabina in such a way that Jung is totally blameless for its strangeness: Otto Gross is the one who has to convince Jung to act (and he disappears from the story right after he’s outlived his usefulness), and Sabina has to coerce him into beating her while they have sex. It’s a good impulse for the writer to want to avoid having his main character gleefully dive into such actions, but it turns him into a bland, passive character. He’s similarly passive when he interacts with Freud, which becomes the downfall of that subplot, as well: despite Jung’s clear passion for his own theories, he allows the more aggressive Freud to steamroll over him quite easily, followed by Jung whining in private to Sabina, Emma, or Gross. As a result, his conversations with Freud go in circles and don’t move the story or characters forward. These scenes mainly exist to keep Freud in the story for the inevitable deterioration of the friendship and working relationship in the third act. The script also doesn’t focus at all on their attempts to legitimize psychology and psychoanalysis, aside from them going to or leaving various lectures and Freud mentioning fears about how their “enemies” will react to certain actions.
A new problem appears in the third act: the writer begins to rely on letters, read in voiceover by the characters, to nudge the story forward. Because nothing visually interesting accompanies these letters (it’s mostly just the characters sitting at desks, reading or writing them), the letters have the unsavory side effect of stopping cold what little momentum the script does have. It may be historically accurate for educated people spread across Europe writing letters to each other, but this is not a Ken Burns documentary. At least the long dialogue scenes have the spark and brisk pacing of real conversation.
Worse than this, the story concludes with a bittersweet reunion between Jung and Sabina (less than a year after he left her), in which Jung admits he’s taken a new mistress. The story takes great pains to make us believe the relationship between Jung and Sabina was something akin to doomed true love, so the fact that he’s already moved on to someone new (whom the script later implies Jung remained involved with until her death nearly 40 years later) undermines the entire relationship. It may be historically accurate, but it’s a detail that’s patently unnecessary to tell this story. Furthermore, Freud disappears from the story after his falling out with Jung, without a very satisfactory resolution to their conflict (they write a series of letters agreeing not to correspond anymore).
Jung aside, the writer does a nice job of developing the characters almost entirely through dialogue. Their speech patterns are distinctive, as are their topics of conversation, and through the characters he does a fair job of illuminating the major psychological theories of the day. The problem is, the things he does well don’t manage to overcome the things the script lacks: a compelling, well-defined protagonist and a third act that doesn’t slow the action to a crawl while simultaneously undermining major components of the story. Without significant revisions, this script will not succeed.