A Dangerous Method (2011) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A look at how the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud gives birth to psychoanalysis.

  • Suffering from hysteria, Sabina Spielrein is hospitalized under the care of Dr. Carl Jung who has begun using Dr. Sigmund Freud's talking cure with some of his patients. Spielrain's psychological problems are deeply rooted in her childhood and violent father. She is highly intelligent however and hopes to be a doctor, eventually becoming a psychiatrist in her own right. The married Jung and Spielrein eventually become lovers. Jung and Freud develop an almost father-son relationship with Freud seeing the young Jung as his likely successor as the standard-bearer of his beliefs. A deep rift develops between them when Jung diverges from Freud's belief that while psychoanalysis can reveal the cause of psychological problems it cannot cure the patient.

  • In the early twentieth century, Zurich-based Carl Jung is a follower in the new theories of psychoanalysis of Vienna-based Sigmund Freud, who states that all psychological problems are rooted in sex. Jung uses those theories for the first time as part of his treatment of Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman brought to his care. She is obviously troubled despite her assertions that she is not crazy. Jung is able to uncover the reasons for Sabina's psychological problems, she who is an aspiring physician herself. In this latter role, Jung employs her to work in his own research, which often includes him and his wife Emma as test subjects. Jung is eventually able to meet Freud himself, they, based on their enthusiasm, who develop a friendship driven by their lengthy philosophical discussions on psychoanalysis. Actions by Jung based on his discussions with another patient, a fellow psychoanalyst named Otto Gross, lead to fundamental changes in Jung's relationships with Freud, Sabina and Emma. Those relationships are also affected by Freud's unbending views of psychoanalysis and its use, by Sabina's growing self-awareness of what drives her emotionally, regardless of their negative root causes, and by Emma's feelings of guilt over not being able to produce a male heir for her husband.

  • Manic, feral, and desperate, Sabina Spielrein arrives at Carl Jung's Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich circa 1904, hoping to calm her violent fits of hysteria. By using his idol Sigmund Freud's innovative methodology and theories, Jung not only manages to succeed but also he unlocks Sabina's intelligent nature, even though he has never met the famous psychoanalyst in person. Nearly two years later when the three of them finally meet in Vienna, a complex corporeal affair will disturb the fine balance of things, as Sabina comes between the two men. Who can escape his most fervent intimate desires?

  • A Russian woman, Sabina, enters a psychiatric hospital in Zurich with a typical case of hysteria. She undertakes a new course of treatment with Dr. Carl Jung, which involves word association and dream interpretation. Patient and doctor become attracted to each other. Sabina comes between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In August 1904, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives at the Burghölzli, the pre-eminent psychiatric hospital in Zurich, Switzerland with a typical case of hysteria and begins a new course of treatment with the young Swiss doctor, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). He is using word association and dream interpretation as part of his approach to Sigmund Freud's (Viggo Mortensen) radical new science of psychoanalysis, and finds that Sabina Spielrein's condition was triggered by the humiliation and sexual arousal she felt as a child due to her short-tempered father's habit of spanking her naked. These conflicting feelings were compounded by her instinctive knowledge (imparted by an angel's voice that speaks in German) that she had done nothing to deserve such a punishment and in fact that she may have been a stand-in for her mother in her father's abuse (since her mother was unfaithful). Also, her affluent Russian Jewish family afforded her an exceptional education in preparation for university study, although not on the subject of sex, and she was a virgin.

    Her intelligence and energy were immediately recognized and encouraged by Jung and Eugen Bleule (André Hennicker), the head of the hospital, and since she plans to study medicine they allow her to assist them in their experiments, including measuring the physical reactions of subjects during word association, to provide empirical data as a scientific basis for psychoanalysis and ameliorate the more sensational aspects of Freud's theories, which contend that all mental illness is rooted in childhood sexual experience, be it real or fantasy. She soon learns that much of this new science is founded on the doctors' observations of themselves, each other, and their families, not just their patients. The doctors correspond at length before they meet, and begin sharing their dreams and analyzing each other, and Freud adopts Jung as his heir and agent.

    Jung finds in Sabina a kindred spirit with a unique perspective as her self-awareness sharpens, and their attraction deepens in what was already well known at the time as transference. Jung's resistance to the idea of infidelity, and breaking the taboo of sex with a patient, is undercut by the wild and unrepentant confidences of another brilliant, philandering, unstable psychoanalyst who comes under his care, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). He decries monogamy in general and suggests that resistance to transference is symptomatic of the repression of normal, healthy sexual impulses, exhorting Jung to indulge himself with abandon.

    Jung finally begins their affair, which in the film includes rudimentary bondage and spanking Sabina at times. Things become even more tangled as he becomes her advisor to her dissertation; he publishes not only his studies of her as a patient but eventually her treatise as well. Her original ideas are rooted not only in her insights into her childhood trauma, but the intensity and conflicts in their relationship. Spielrein's thesis suggests that truly heroic, original creations can only emerge from the crucible of great conflict, such as the attraction of opposites and the breaking of taboos, and thus the instinct for creation is inextricably tied to a drive to destruction, and that these feelings and ideas are not restricted to sexual expression despite their roots in the biological drive to reproduce. This includes, finally, his refusal to give her a love child, which is the story behind the reference to Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen operas: they see themselves in the legend of Siegfried, the archetypal Teutonic hero born from a forbidden union. After his attempt to confine their relationship again to doctor and patient, she appeals to Freud for his professional help, and forces Jung to tell Freud the truth about their relationship, reminding him that she could have publicly damaged him but did not want to.

    Jung and Freud journey to America. However, cracks appear in their friendship as they begin to disagree more frequently on matters of psychoanalysis. Jung and Spielrein meet to work on her dissertation in Switzerland, and begin their sexual relationship once more. However, after Jung refuses to leave his wife for her, Spielrein decides to go to Vienna. She meets Freud, and expresses that although she sides with him, she believes he and Jung need to reconcile for psychoanalysis to continue to develop.

    Following Freud's collapse at an academic conference, Jung and Freud continue correspondence via letters, through which they decide to end their relationship, after increasing hostilities and accusations regarding the differences in their conceptualization of psychoanalysis. Spielrein marries a Russian doctor and, while pregnant, visits Jung and his wife. They discuss psychoanalysis and Jung's new mistress. Jung confides that his love for Spielrein made him a better person.

    A final on-screen text reveals that Otto Gross starved to death in Berlin in 1919, that Freud died of cancer in London in 1939 after being driven out of Vienna by the Nazis, that Spielrein trained a number of analysts in the new Soviet Union, before she, along with her two daughters, was shot by Nazis in 1942, and that Jung emerged from a nervous breakdown to become the world's leading psychologist before dying peacefully in 1961.

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