David Cronenberg has made a career eschewing expectations on the trajectory of his filmography. From the early stylized visuals of “Videodrome” and “The Fly” to the controversial “Crash” and mind-melting “Naked Lunch” and on to his recent critical critically acclaimed pairings with Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” Cronenberg remains one of the most exciting directors on the fringes of Hollywood.
His latest offering, an exploration of the birth of psychoanalysis starring Michael Fassbender as Carl Gustaev Jung, Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein and Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, is probably the last thing one might expect from the man who once brought us the exploding heads of “Scanners.” The talky period piece takes aim at the human mind over the visual stimuli he’s best known for.
The Playlist spoke with the intelligent, thoughtful Cronenberg last week about his exploration of the human mind and the men that first tapped into all the dark revelations behind the decisions we make and the people we become. Here are some highlights from our discussion.
The film is based on a play, but the play was based on a screenplay
In a sense, the play from which “A Dangerous Method” draws it basis, Christopher Hampton’s “The Talking Cure,” was always intended to be a movie. Hampton himself actually wrote the story as a script first. “It was a screenplay based on the book 'A Most Dangerous Method' ” Cronenberg tells The Playlist, “which is not a novel but an academic study of Freud and Sabina and Jung.”
Discovering Sabina Spielrein
The life and influence of Sabina Spielrein is a relatively new discovery. Hampton and Cronenberg dug deep into these recent discoveries in order to portray what they feel is an accurate representation. “A lot of Sabina’s letters have been released,” says Cronenberg. "You see quotes from them in the 'Most Dangerous Method' book. There was a documentary called 'My Name Was Sabina Spielrein' made by a Swedish director [Elisabeth Marton]. There was an early book called 'A Secret Symmetry' by Adlo Caratenuto, an Italian scholar who first dove into these letters that had been discovered in Geneva in 1977. It was a suitcase of her letters, which nobody knew anything about until then. She had left it there when she went to Russia. Inside was her diary and letters she wrote to Freud and Jung, so it opened up this vast area of exploration that hadn’t existed before.”
The movie should add to Spielrein’s exposure and further prove the historical importance of Spielrein’s work. “She’s become quite a cause celebre and you can see that she could easily be elevated to the status of feminist icon, feminist martyr even. Though Freud did give her a footnote, Jung didn’t give her even that. And yet, it was obvious from the letters, even from Jung’s letters, that she was an influence on both men’s work.”
David Cronenberg believes Keira Knightley ranks up there with Miranda Richardson and Lynn Redgrave
There are few actresses daring enough to take on the challenging role of Spielrein, from the early stages of her young womanhood coming to Jung while fighting fits of hysteria and the revelations that would define her own work and forever alter the work of Freud and Jung.
“Keira’s the only one we ever offered this role to,” says the director. “I was convinced right from the beginning. The actress for this role has to be convincing as a Russian Jewish character and she has to have the ability to be articulate because these people were incredibly articulate and intellectual. So you need someone who could do all that and I had no problems being convinced that Keira was the one. I think she’s a very underrated actress. What I didn’t know was how incredibly professional and well-prepared and what a delight she is to work with. She’s a real actress. I’ve worked with some of the best actresses ever, from Miranda Richardson to Lynn Redgrave and on and on. She’s right up there with them. She’s that good. It was a very studied performance.”
Viggo Mortensen went to great lengths to inhabit Freud
There’s a reason Cronenberg (and plenty of other directors) like to work with Viggo Mortensen. He doesn’t take the roles he chooses lightly and, once he’s on board, his attention to detail is unparalleled. “Once he committed to doing it, there was no turning back with Viggo,” Cronenberg tells The Playlist. “I would get emails from him in the Czech Republic because he was standing in front of Freud’s birthplace. And then he’d be in Hampstead at the Freud museum in London and then he’d be in Vienna. In the meantime, we’re exchanging emails and pictures endlessly about Freud’s cigars. How many a day he smoked, what kind they were, what shape they were, could he afford them? What did they cost? Would he have ever smoked different kinds during the day? On and on and on. Well, it turns out Freud smoked 22 cigars a day, every day, which is why he had jaw cancer. There’s only one scene in the movie where he doesn’t have a cigar.”
Beyond the mere look of Freud and his constant cigar-chomping, Mortensen even learned to write like the man. Although this wasn’t something Cronenberg asked for, it did allow the director additional freedom since so much of the movie portrays the endless exchanging of letters between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. “I was able to do a shot over his shoulder moving past him onto the letter that he’s writing in German in Freud’s exact handwriting.
“All of this is, for me, is not unexpected from Viggo,” adds Cronenberg.
Fassbender’s Jung wasn't yet an icon and was still making a name for himself
While some actors say playing a historical character is often much more difficult, Michael Fassbender apparently found the opposite to be the case. “There was so much material that is really useful for an actor,” says Cronenberg. “The posture of the man, the clothes that he wore, where he worked – all of these things are known. If it’s a fictional character, you’re working from scratch. Here you’ve got a wealth of material right away.”
This early portion of Jung’s career produced work that was often in opposition to the canonical theories later espoused by the psychoanalyst. Cronenberg and Fassbender were careful not to let that knowledge influence the portrayal of the man he was at the age of 29. “Jung did not know he was an iconic character at this point in his life. He was young, he was trying to make a career. So the actor has to basically throw away that knowledge of where he goes ultimately. You could certainly make a movie about the post-war years of Jung’s life, but you’re not going there.”
After his split with Freud, Jung’s pursuits turned towards the spiritual. “He went exactly where Freud thought he would go, which is into sort of Aryan mysticism and spirituality and that kind of religious sensibility. It’s only relevant when people say, ‘Wasn’t sex the cause of the break-up?’ It wasn’t just sex, Freud’s insistence on sex theory. Jung’s father and six of his uncles were pastors in the church. Although he derided them as a young man, I think he became one. I think he wanted to be a pastor who would lead his flock into spiritual self-realization. For Freud this was anathema. He was an atheist. It was a complete betrayal of what he was trying to establish which was, in his mind, more scientific and grounded.”
Still, Jung retained some of his early discoveries, particularly when it came to his stance on the tenets of marriage, which were heavily altered by the free-spirited Otto Gross, who is portrayed quite memorably in the film by Vincent Cassel. “He was very much converted by Gross,” says Cronenberg. “That was all true. He came to believe that polygamy was a good way to live. He actually recommended polygamy as an alternative to divorce for many of his patients. And he lived that out.”
“A Dangerous Method” is now playing.