Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Freud on Film

As someone who doesn't have a lot of time for Freudian psychology, I was unlikely to ever love a film described as 'The first openly 'Freudian' movie', but as someone who does have a lot of time for silent cinema I thought I'd see GW Pabst's Secrets of a Soul on the big screen while I had the chance (it was screening at the BFI Southbank as part of their 'Psycho in Context' season). Although, as expected, the film didn't overly excite me on a narrative level, it felt like a pretty impressive piece of cinema all the same.

Based on a real case history, the film, co-written by Pabst and two of Freud's assistants, tells the story of a chemistry professor – Martin Fellman – who develops a fear of sharp objects, before a chance encounter with a psychoanalyst leads him onto the couch.

The opening scenes unfold at an impressively measured pace, slowly unfolding the events which lead up to the film's centrepiece moment: the elaborate expressionist dream sequence. Utilising all manner of effects and tricks, the sequence serves as a strong example of the power of German expression to render character psychology on screen solely through visual means (stylised sets, double exposures, miniatures, distorted images, etc.).

Given the impressive imagery of the dream sequence, it's all the more disappointing when the film then plods along into a pretty pat psychoanalytical breakdown of its meaning. Piece-by-piece, Fellman and his analyst discuss the dream and soon enough Fellman is cured and feeling fine just in time for a trite, sentimental ending.

While Pabst's sturdy directorial hand ensures that the film is never without interest, unfortunately as a whole the piece never lives up to the promise of its exciting dream sequence: perhaps a hint that sometimes the unconscious is best left unexplained.

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