A Review

by Alvin G. Burstein

Growing up in the 1930’s, going to the movies was a special treat. Summers in Omaha, on the banks of the Missouri river could be hot, and the marquees would promise “20 degrees cooler inside.” The Italianate architecture of the Paramount theatre induced a sense of luxury, and stars studded the velvet dark of the ceiling.

In later Chicago days, the surroundings could be on the dingy side, and it was years before I learned I didn’t have to stay for the whole triple feature. But there was always popcorn. The wheel turns, and now I favor the movie tavern, with reclining seats, cocktails and food, albeit microwaved.

But, given Covid 19 and social distancing, the movie tavern is off-limits, so I decided to binge watch eight hours of the NetFlix Freud.

It is quite a confection, a mashup of biopic, gross-out horror, social commentary, murder mystery and skin flick. Something, as it were, for everyone. Its ties to Freud’s theories and to his life are deep, detailed and elaborately fictionalized.

Robert Finster plays a hunky, coked-up, grandiosely ambitious, but highly unsuccessful young Jewish neurologist in racist Vienna. We watch him interacting with his mentor, Breuer, played by Merab Ninitze, and his boss, Meynert, played by Rainer Bock. These are real people in Freud’s life, though the details of their relationship to him and each other are freely tweaked. Young Freud gets entangled with a Hungarian couple, Count and Countess Szápáry and their protogé, Fleur Salomé. Fleur, it turns out, has a dual identity—a classic, if creaky, dual personality. She is, at times, a táltos.

These are figures in Magyar folk lore. Children born with six fingers, patent teeth, or a caul that are supposed to have mystical powers. The script writer(s) seem familiar with this material, because at one climactic moment an adult Fleur/táltos emerges from an amniotic casing, and as the series draws to its close, she meets Freud wearing a veil, a caul, over her face.

There is a noble Hungarian Szápáry family, but the Count and Countess in the film appear fictions. Their role in exploiting the 19th century political complexities of the AustroHungarian empire is a Cliff’s Notes view of an interesting place and time.

Fleur, too, would appear to be fictional. She may be intended as a teasing reference to Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman prominent in the European intelligentsia of the time who became a member of Freud’s later psychoanalytic circle. But in the film Fleur Salomé is one of Freud’s first patients, one with whom he becomes sexually involved.

So we are presented with an account of the dangerous potential of counter-transference, a theme pounded home in the 2011 film, A Dangerous Method, describing Jung’s first psychoanalytic case. Aside from the misinformed implication that the therapeutic transference is positive and sexual, as opposed to multi-faceted and often productively negative, this film commits a second theoretical blunder. It confounds the repression central to the psychoanalytic view of hysteria with the so-called vertical splitting that occurs in identity disorders, arguably now more common, or at least more often diagnosed than the hysterias.

There are some genuinely well-acted and very engaging characters in the film that made the eight hours bearable if not gratifying. Inspector Kiss, played by Georg Freidric; Poschacher, his sidekick, played by Christoph Krutzler; and Lenore, Freud’s housekeeper, played by Brigette Kren, stand out.

A final trigger warning: full frontal male nudity, graphic sadism.

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