Get the Back Story: My Name Was Sabina Spielrein

Over the years, Facets has released several indie features and documentaries that seemed to prefigure higher profile movies on the same subjects. In an effort to shine a spotlight on these unsung originals, I am introducing a new semi-regular feature for the blog—Get the Back Story—which will expose one of these indies and its connection to its Hollywood counterpart. All of these unsung films are available to rent or buy on the Facets website; or, if you live in the Chicago area, stop by our friendly video store and ask the actual human beings behind the counter for their assistance.
David Cronenberg’s much-anticipated film A Dangerous Method is scheduled for release in November 2011. The respected auteur, whose fame rests on his “body horror films,” takes on the story of the rivalry/friendship between Freud and Jung in this drama. The source of their contention is young, beautiful Sabina Spielrein, a patient who suffers from “demonic moods and malicious harassment,” according to Jung. The film boasts a big-name cast, including Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, Michael Fassbender as Jung, and, in his third film for Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen as Freud. The subject matter of the “fathers of psychoanalysis” seems perfect for Cronenberg: He has always critiqued men of science in his films (Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome, Dead Ringers), and recently, he has taken to exploring the psychology of his characters’ inner lives (M. Butterfly, Spider, Naked Lunch). Though based on real-life historical figures, the events and characters in A Dangerous Mind will be shaped and altered to fit Cronenberg’s themes and world view. I eagerly await its release.

Often, a film based on historical figures will spark interest in the real-life people and events. While that’s only natural, it’s not fair to compare the feature film to actual history. Facts are altered not because the filmmaker doesn’t know any better but because he is expressing artistic themes or universal truths. In that light, I am writing about the Facets release My Name Was Sabina Spielrein not to criticize Cronenberg’s film but to offer another view of this interesting woman.
According to director Elisabeth Marton, Spielrein was snatched from oblivion when her private papers and letters to Jung and Freud were discovered a few years ago. Books and articles about Spielrein appeared, most of which were written by male scholars and most of which were negative. After reading Spielrein’s correspondence, Marton questioned the prevailing view of this complex woman.
Born in Russia in 1885, Sabina Spielrein was an intelligent child who delighted in learning everything. When her beloved sister, Emilia, died of typhoid, Sabina experienced a deeply rooted trauma, resulting in behavioral problems. In 1904, her father committed her to a private sanitarium in Switzerland, which proved ineffective, so he left her in the mental institution where Jung was on staff. Through intensive psychotherapy with Jung, the young, passionate woman improved, and the following year, she began studying psychoanalysis herself.
Her misfortune was to fall in love with her mentor and former doctor. Unwisely, Jung embarked on an affair with his patient/student. When the very married psychoanalyst realized the affair could damage his career and his marriage, he broke it off. A heartbroken Spielrein turned to Freud, either to confide in him or to ask for advice, and the two began a decades-long correspondence. Embarrassed, Jung ungraciously blamed Sabina—who was not only his student but young and emotionally vulnerable—for deliberately setting out to seduce him.
In 1912, Sabina Spielrein married Pawel Scheftel, a Jewish doctor from Russia. It was not a match made in heaven. Scheftel returned to his homeland in 1914, but Spielrein remained in Europe with their daughter until 1923. That year, she moved to Russia to work for the Institute for Psychoanalysis, followed by stints at Vera Schmidt’s Psychoanalytical Child Laboratory and the Department of Child Psychology at the First University of Moscow. Pawel and Sabina eventually reconciled and had another daughter. However, life in the Soviet Union deteriorated under Stalin, who did not approve of psychoanalysis. Spielrein’s life fell apart under communism, and during World War II, she suffered further at the hands of the Nazis.
Ultimately, the discovery of Spielrein calls into question the judgment of Carl Jung, one of the 20th century’s geniuses, for having an affair with his former patient and student. Marton and her docudrama beg the question: Was Sabina initially painted by scholars and historians as an unstable figure, a probable incest victim, or a seductress to lessen Jung’s culpability in an illicit affair that damaged a young woman’s life?
 –Susan Doll
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