Film Review: A Dangerous Method


A Dangerous Method

Director  - David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method depicts the life of Carl Jung between 1904 and 1913, covering his relationships with his patient Sabina Spielrein and his colleague Sigmund Freud, with smaller parts for his wife Emma and another patient, Otto Gross. My immediate impression was one of beauty: in the natural settings, the homes, the actresses and their fin-de-siècle costumes. The film reflects the expansiveness of Jung’s physical world: his mansion at Küsnacht with its garden sloping down to broad views over Lake Zurich (Jung’s wife was a wealthy heiress). By contrast, Freud’s family of nine lived in cramped conditions in an urban apartment in Vienna. I couldn’t help wondering whether this difference in environment didn’t play a role in shaping the contrast between Freud’s tight and controlling theories and Jung’s expansive thinking. Determined to do more than explain patients’ difficulties and replace neurosis with ordinary unhappiness, Jung wanted to help them find an inner inspiration for living a life in which they expressed the fullness of their potential, a project that, the film suggests, applies equally to Jung himself. Conversely, Freud’s defensiveness and paranoia are motivated when we are shown, in numerous small ways, his disadvantages relative to Jung: both the financial disparity between them and his place as a Jew on a lower rung of the social pecking order than the Protestant Jung’s. This may help to explain the way he clung onto his ‘authority’ over his junior colleagues.

The film opens with Spielrein being taken - literally kicking and screaming - to the Burghölzli Clinic in Zurich where Jung is a young psychiatrist. We see him using the ‘talking cure’ with Spielrein and her quite sudden, but unexplained, transformation from madwoman into medical student and even colleague. I thought that the film could have been longer to show more of the background to her condition and more of the ‘psyche-analysis’ (as Jung calls it initially) that leads to her recovery. While still a patient in the hospital, she is enrolled by Jung as his research assistant, and we see the two of them administering a word association test to Emma, which reveals her ambivalence about her pregnancy and her concerns about Jung losing interest in her. Later, the dissolute analyst Otto Gross is referred to Jung by Freud and becomes a patient in the hospital. ‘Like Spielrein, he seemed to think that, once made conscious, sexual desires tend to demand expression; unlike Spielrein, he didn’t think this was such a bad thing’ (Kerr, 1994: 169). In conversation with Jung, we can see Gross gradually persuading the highly repressed monogamous Jung to engage in an affair with Spielrein. When rumours start circulating in Vienna about the affair, Jung hastily ends it, leading Spielrein to write to Freud to put her side of the story. Eventually we are shown a glimpse of some of the tensions that lead to the well-known break in relations between Freud and Jung, and the film ends with the now married and pregnant Spielrein taking tea with Emma in the garden at Küsnacht and Emma urging her to talk to Jung, who is shown as depressed and lost. The film ends in the shadows of Jung’s impending breakdown and the imminent cataclysm of World War 1, as Jung tells Spielrein his dream about Europe being flooded with rivers of blood.

One major theme in the film is the fuzzy boundary between analyst and patient: Spielrein and Gross are both simultaneously, while Freud and Jung are colleagues who reveal their neuroses to each other. Jung seeks Freud’s interpretation of his dreams; Freud refuses to subject himself to this, but faints in Jung’s presence, a neurotic response to his increasing challenge to Freud’s ideas and ‘authority’. There is also the theme of the eventual lack of boundaries between Jung and his patients, his more engaged and less distanced stance with them leading to his affair with Spielrein (and later with Toni Wolff) and his temptation by Gross. Spielrein’s influence on the theories of Jung and Freud are hinted at in conversations with the two men, but like everything else in the film this is delicately implied rather than spelled out. This is a film which you mine more deeply the more you know about the story in advance.

The superb screenplay by Christopher Hampton was based on John Kerr’s detailed account of the story of Jung, Freud and Spielrein, ‘A Most Dangerous Method’. Hampton, when interviewed on radio, admitted to preferring Freud to Jung. This comes across in the film, the actor Viggo Mortensen portraying Freud as dignified, sensitive and benign. Freud’s viciousness in breaking with Jung is downplayed, as well as his controllingness and dogmatism. Michael Fassbender’s Jung is deeply serious and stiff, with a passionate concern for truth over dogma or authority. But, against all the physical beauty of the film, the beauty of Jung’s visionary and creative thinking is barely evident (though admittedly the richness and depth of his mind was more potential than realised at this pre-breakdown stage in his life). His passionate affair with Spielrein is shown bursting through his repression, but we see clearly his respect and love for both wife and mistress in his valuing of both in their separate spheres. This allowed him later to openly pursue a 30 year affair with Toni Wolff with Emma’s blessing. The character of Sabina Spielrein is central, and I went to the film with trepidation, based on Keira Knightley’s past performances where – in my view - she single-handedly destroyed Atonement and Pride and Prejudice.  In ‘A Dangerous Method’, I was waiting for her irritating grin-grimace to puncture the illusion that she was Spielrein, but after a while I relaxed and was able to forget the actress and appreciate her stunning beauty. She worked very hard, and though she appears to have played the role from the outside in as an aggregate of bodily tics and spasms, she put in a believable though unmoving performance.

This is a well-researched, rich, restrained and non-sensational film. Those who would not usually risk disturbing their peace of mind by attending one of Cronenberg’s shockers need not hesitate to see A Dangerous Method. No health warning is required.


Kerr, John (1994) A Most Dangerous Method: The story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. London: Sinclair- Stevenson

Dr. Barbara Dowds
Lecturer, PCI College



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