by Alvin G. Burstein
This reworking of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe was filmed in Bulgaria in 2013 and is now available on Amazon. Its opening scene is a clear echo of a lithograph that hung in Freud’s study, a reproduction of a famous painting by André Brouillet, A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière now hanging in the University of Paris Medical History Museum. In the painting Professor Charcot displays a woman patient in a hysterical seizure before an
audience of medical notables.
In the movie, the audience is a group of medical students, and the professor unnamed. His patient, Eliza, begins to struggle to escape the professor, protesting that she is sane. The professor warns his students that all mental patients make that claim and urges them not to believe anything they hear and only half of what they see.
The film segues to a young man arriving at Stonehearst Asylum to take up a position as a resident physician. He introduces himself as Dr. Newgate to the medical director, Dr. Lamb, who explains that the asylum has an innovative approach—its patients are not drugged or incarcerated and their delusions are accepted as sources of comfort to
Newgate is surprised but intrigued by the notion. He attends a dinner at which patients and staff mingle. One of the patients, Eliza, is the attractive young woman whom we had met in the opening scene. As the plot unfolds, Newgate discovers the asylum’s original staff has been imprisoned in the asylum’s basement. He learns that Dr. Lamb is a dangerous imposter and that patients, rebelling against harsh treatments—amply
illustrated in the film—have taken over the hospital. Newgate becomes determined to free the prisoners, revealing to the young woman that he had seen her during the demonstration and that he loves her.
Suspenseful plot twists and turns follow. Lamb forces Newgate to collaborate in the electro-convulsive shocking of the original director, erasing his memory. Then Lamb and his assistant attempt to force Newgate to undergo the same fate. Recounting how that is avoided would be a spoiler, but the movie closes with the physician from the opening scene, accompanied by Eliza’s husband, arriving at the asylum asking for her.
They are told that she has been discharged as cured by Dr. Newgate. The visitor insists that is impossible. Asked why, his response is that he is Dr. Newgate. The final scene shows Newgate’s impersonator and Eliza at an elegant asylum in Italy, dancing together.
The Poe short story, The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, from which the movie was adapted, was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1845. It is much more sparse than the movie, lacking the love interest. It describes a tourist visiting an asylum because of his interest in an innovative treatment method, “soothing” centered on accepting patients’ delusions as sources of comfort. A festive dinner at the institution is interrupted when the staff of the asylum, who had been imprisoned by their patients—and tarred and feathered by them—burst into the room and recover control of the institution.
Given its title and content, the tale is obviously farcical. One can only speculate on Poe’s reason for writing it. I was struck by its relevance to our contemporary political scene. It warns of the dangers of eschewing rationality and reality testing, what psychoanalysis calls secondary process, the hazards of accepting the notion of “alternative facts” and theories without an empirical basis, and the failure to search for objective truth.