The hysterical woman patient haunts the early history of psychoanalysis, calling into question the objectivity of its first practitioners, who founded an admittedly imperfect science on the ruins of her mind and body. Case histories, descriptions of symptoms, and sometimes even patients themselves were passed between Sigmund Freud and his male colleagues—objects of exchange whose emotional currency remained wildly untested.
Among them, Sabina Spielrein stands out, both for the role she played in the rift between Freud and Carl Jung and because—no mere victim—she became a devoted convert to psychoanalysis’s cause. Drawing upon letters found in a Swiss basement in 1977, Elisabeth Márton’s documentary vividly illuminates a complex woman whose achievements were long relegated to the footnotes of history.
Spielrein, a Russian Jew, was 19 in 1904 when she came to the attention of the 29-year-old Jung, who was then employing Freudian techniques to treat mental illness in a progressive Swiss asylum. Spielrein’s diagnosis—hysteria—encompassed a range of florid symptoms, including a marked inability to bear other people’s humiliation. During 10 months of treatment, Spielrein fell in love with her doctor, while the married Jung—warned by Freud of the dangers of “counter-transference”—kept his intense feelings for her largely to himself.
At least up to a point. Quoting—perhaps too extensively—from the lengthy correspondence among Spielrein, Jung, and Freud and using period footage and soft-focus re-creations, Márton documents the growing relationship between Spielrein and Jung, whose mutual passion (even if unconsummated) overstepped the now recognized bounds between doctor and patient. The love affair became still more complicated when Spielrein finished her medical studies and embarked upon a distinguished career as a psychoanalyst. Freud mentions her work in a footnote to Beyond the Pleasure Principle as contributing to his theory of the death drive; Jung, Márton suggests, may have plagiarized her.
Spielrein married unhappily and raised two daughters, who perished with her in 1942, when German troops rounded up and shot the Jews of her native Rostov. Márton quotes from her late letters, which show her still wondering what she had meant to Jung, and he to her. This evocative film is a poignant testament to the twin forces of love (however blighted) and the unconscious.