Thursday, 11 April 2013

Pabst Freud Weimar - Secrets of a Soul

G W Pabst's film Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele) (1926) is the story of Martin,  a wealthy Berlin scientist, who is crippled by anxiety. He develops a phobia of knives, terrified that he might kill his wife. Pabst worked closely with two noted psychologists, Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs, so the film is often approached as a window into psychiatric practice in the 1920's, lovingly dissected by psychoanalysts, who see it was a vindication of their profession. But is it? Seen from other perspectives, it's actually quite damning.

Martin is shaving with a cut-throat razor, removing the hairs that testosterone makes men grow. He looks at the nape of his wife's neck and experiences horrible feelings. A woman is murdered nearby. The killer escapes to Munich, but Martin is gripped by fear and guilt.  He is intimate with his wife,  The couple haven't been able to have a child. Even the family dog has puppies, but Martin's house is empty.  Eventually a woman - almost certainly not his mother, but a mother figure, suggests he should see a doctor who will cure him. "After many months of hard work" the intertitles tell us, Martin recalls a childhood event which forms the basis of all his adult anguish. Instantly, he's "cured". An epilogue shows Martin fishing in an idyllic mountain setting. He looks up towards a chalet to see his wife embracing a child. Martin skips along a path like a happy child. Then you notice that the banks of the stream are unnaturally straight and uneven.  He drops the whole bucket of fish he's caught. Is this a happy ending, or is Pabst undermining the very idea of resolution? Perhaps this is just another dream sequence. Wish fulfilment but not reality.

Central to the drama is a long dream  sequence, filmed with the full artillery of modernist techniques of the time.  Multiple exposures superimposed on each other suggest the hidden layers of Martin's soul. A tree is shot in white against a black background, A whole village of cardboard buildings pop out, and a tower shaped explicitly like a penis drills it way to the surface as if emerging from the subconscious. The cupola on the tower is shaped like the pith helmet Martin's wife's cousin wears in the tropics. The cousin has sent Martin and his wife gifts from exotic lands - a sheathed knife and very well carved soapstone idol.  Since many educated Europeans at the time were fairly aware oif theosophy and orientalist ideas (they read Tagore, for example), it's quite possible that Pabst and at least some of his audience recognized the idol as Kuanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, whom some traditions describe as hermaphrodite.

Freud intepreted dreams. So have shamans in all cultures. But visual images are also the stock in trade of film makers and theatre directors. Coming to Secrets of a Soul from an opera staging perspective reveals a lot more than conventional Freudian analysis might suggest. Visual images, by their very nature, are open to multiple interpretation. Two people looking at the same object from different angles will see it differently. Seeing is a process which involves emotional input , dependent on the sensitivity of the viewer and his/her ability to think from perspectives other than their own. Thus there's so much resistance to opera stagings : audiences forget that all performances involve interpretation. There's no fixed formula. Visual literacy is like emotional intelligence. The art is in making connections, and in making connections that ring true, supported by other connections.

Because we're now so accustomed to Freudian imagery, many aspects of Secrets of a Soul are easy to identify, such as the phallic tower and the pop-gun the man in the helmet fires at Martin from the tree. Much has been made of Martin's supposed impotence or homosexuality because we're used to reading those signs. But Pabst was an artist. He wasn't confined to simple, literal images. Commentators largely ignore the women in the film, but anyone familiar with Pabst's other films (Pandora's Box, Die Dreigroschenoper etc)  will be alert to his ideas of female power.  Martin works in a lab where his assistants are women, and they're strong minded.  A little girl visits, and Martin is clearly delighted. Does that suggest his love for children is tainted?  In the absence of other clues, we can't assume. The images of dogs, the household, the meal, Kuanyin, all connect to the idea of childhood and fertility. Martin dreams of his wife in an exotic harem, clearly enjoying herself.  Martin fiddles with a key because he can't enter his house. But perhaps the key missing in a straightforward Freudian analysis is the simple fact that Martin  has married a woman with whom he grew up as a sister? No wonder he can love her but can't get her pregnant.

Martin has a flashback to a childhood Christmas when he, his wife and her cousin were playing together. We see toy trains and remember the phallic trains in his big dream. We see Martin shown a new baby, while the girl who will be his wife hands a toy doll to her cousin. Aha! Insight! The psychoanalyst helps Martin make the connection. But why should an innocent gesture like that mature into murderous anxiety? If all psychiatric problems were that easy to solve, life would be so simple. Because this is a silent film, intertitles are sparse: people watched, rather than reading words. Nonetheless the psychoanalyst has more to say than anyone else and he speaks in jargon. Perhaps Pabst is making a point by casting Werner Krauss as Martin. Krauss was the mad doctor in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) where the doctor/patient/relationship is upside down. Pabst shows Martin in his lab, mixing potions. Perhaps he's suggesting that science and pseudo science aren't that far apart? Artists interpreted dreams and visual images long before psychoanalysis came into the frame. Reading images is not a science, but a creative art in itself.

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