A Dangerous Method – The Dangers of Boundaries in Psychotherapy



C.G. Jung has come in for quite a lot of public attention in the past several years, first in 2009 and following with the publication of The Red Book and all of the publicity and buzz surrounding that phenomenal work, and now with the Hollywood film, “A Dangerous Method,” which takes place during his years of psychiatric residency at the Burgholzli Klinik in Zurich and his association with Sigmund Freud. Most centrally, the film dwells a young female patient at the Klinik named Sabina Spielrein and her relationships with Jung and Freud. A century after the events depicted, the director David Cronenberg attempts to bring the era back to life in vivid color and on the big screen.

Bearing in mind that the film is not intended to be a documentary but rather a fictionalized depiction of a story lifted from scholarly works, and that all films including documentaries represent a careful selection and presentation of people, places and dramatized events, and therefore the director’s sculpted rendering, many viewers are still left wondering about historical accuracy since this film is based on historical characters and actual happenings. Just how close to historical reality are the portrayals of Jung, Freud and Spielrein? Does the film show the audience today how it really was a century ago, among those people, in their time? Aside from that, what can we say about the film itself as a cinematic work and what kinds of reflection and questions does it provoke in the viewer?

The film is based on a theatrical play by Christopher Hampton (“The Talking Cure”), who took considerable liberties with the story as put forward in John Kerr’s study, A Most Dangerous Method – The Story of Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein (1993). Kerr’s work was in turn preceded by Aldo Carotenuoto’s ground-breaking book, A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud. The Untold Story of the Woman who Changed the early History of Psychoanalysis (1982). Carotenuto discovered and was the first to read and publish the correspondence between Jung and Sabina Spielrein as well as Spielrein’s personal diary. The story as told in the film has therefore gone through several transformations from original documents through scholarly reconstructions and interpretations, then to dramatizing scripts for stage and screen, changing and morphing until finally we have the film, “A Dangerous Method,” with the beautiful English actress, Keira Knightly, playing the Jewish-Russian patient and student, Sabina Spielrein; the dashing German-Irish actor, Michael Fassbender, playing the young Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. C.G. Jung; and the lordly Danish-American actor, Viggo Mortensen, playing the middle-aged Viennese-Jewish founder of psychoanalysis, Dr. Sigmund Freud. It’s a respected cast under the direction of a noted film-maker. How closely does the film reflect the historical characters and their relationships? And looking ahead, how much did Spielrein and Freud really mean for the later work of Jung? How important was this young patient and student for Jung’s theorizing and later thinking? These are questions that we will take up in this seminar.

Another line of reflection will be the problem, so graphically raised by the film, of the nature of analytical relationships. Jung’s treatment of Sabina Spielrein, which is generally thought to be one of the first if not the very first of his attempts at using psychoanalytic methods, took place in a university psychiatric clinic in Zurich at a time when what we today calmly refer to as the transference-countertransference dynamic was not yet clearly understood or formulated. It would take decades of experience, theorizing and collaborative observation among many psychoanalysts to come to the full elaboration of the interpersonal and intrapsychic aspects of the analytic relationship. The film highlights the intense erotic relationship that supposedly developed between Spielrein and Jung, and shows how this pioneer in psychoanalysis dealt with it. In this, the film raises questions that are still relevant to analytic practice today.

To address the questions of historical accuracy, the seminar will feature Angela Graf-Nold, a longtime student of the history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, who has done original research into the treatment of Spielrein at the Burgholzli Klinik and into the relationships between her and C.G. Jung, Sigmund Freud and other figures shown in the film. For the clinical questions pertaining to transference and the patient-doctor relationship in analysis, Jan Wiener, a recognized authority on this subject and the author of the recent work, The Therapeutic Relationship – Transference, Countertransference and the Making of Meaning, will join the Seminar from London.

Murray Stein will introduce the Seminar and reflect on the film as cinematic art, add commentary in the other areas and guide the discussion.


Dr. Murray Stein is a supervising training analyst and president of The International School of Analytical Psychology in Zurich, Switzerland (ISAP Zurich). He is the author of The Principle of Individuation and many other books and articles in the field of Jungian Psychoanalysis. From 2001 to 2004 he was president of the International Association for Analytical Psychology. He has lectured internationally and presently makes his home in Switzerland.

Angela Graf-Nold, PhD, studied psychology at the University of Zurich and specialized in psychotherapy and the history of psychotherapy and psychology. She held several research positions on various departments at the university of Zurich, including the Department for Child Psychiatry (for the history of psychotherapy of children), and the Psychiatric Clinic of the University, (Burghölzli) for epidemiology and archival Studies. From 2004 – 2010 she was a Philemon senior scholar at the Institute for Medical History for its forthcoming edition of C.G. Jung‘s lectures at the ETH Zurich.

Jan Wiener trained originally as an academic psychologist. She is a Training Analyst for the Society of Analytical Psychology (SAP) and the British Association of Psychotherapists (BAP) and is a past Director of Training of the SAP. She is also Vice President of the International Association of Analytical Psychology with a long-standing interest in the Developing Groups in Analytical Psychology that now exist spread widely across the world.  She combines work as a Consultant Adult Psychotherapist in National Health Service hospital setting with a private practice in London. She has published widely on subjects such as transference, ethics, training and supervision. She teaches both in the UK and overseas.


Learning Objectives:

Participants in this seminar should be able:

  1. To list key features of the early years of psychoanalysis.
  2. To explain about the relationship between Jung and Freud.
  3. To discuss the influence of Sabina Spielrein on psychoanalysis.
  4. To compare and contrast early and contemporary understandings of transference.
  5. To explain the relation of fictional representation to historical factuality.

Outline of the Seminar:

  1. “Comments on the film,” by Murray Stein.
  2. “What about Sabina Spielrein as a patient, as a student, and as a medical doctor?” by Angela Graf-Nold.
  3. “The discovery of transference and countertransference and what to do about it,” by Jan Wiener.
  4. Break
  5. Questions, Discussion, Dialog among seminar participants and leaders.


Bleuler, E. (1923/1988) Textbook of Psychiatry. The Classics of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Library.

Carotenuto, A. (1982) A Secret Symmetry. New York: Pantheon.

Covington, C., (Ed.) (2003) Sabina Spielrein, Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis. Brunner Routledge

Forel, A. (1906/2007) Hypnotism Or Suggestion And Psychotherapy: A Study Of The Psychological, Psychophysiological And Therapeutic Aspects Of Hypnotism.  Tr. H.W. Armit.  Kessinger Publishing

Graf-Nold, A. (2001) “The Zürich School of Psychiatry in theory and practice. Sabina Spielrein’s treatment at the Burghölzli Clinic in Zürich.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 46, 73-104.

Jung, C.G. (Ed.) (1918/1969) Studies in word association, experiments in the diagnosis of psychopathological conditions carried out at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Zurich,  transl. by M.D. Eder, Routledge & Kegan Paul;  Jung’s papers in:  Coll. Wks., Vol. 2, paras. 1-1014. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1904/1974.

McGuire, W. (Ed.) (1974) The Freud-Jung Letters. Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press.

Wiener, J. (2009) The Therapeutic Relationship – Transference, Countertransference and the Making of Meaning.College Station, TX.:TexasA & MUniversity Press.


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