In 1904, a young Swiss psychiatrist took as his first patient a 19-year-old Russian woman who was diagnosed as suffering from hysteria. The patient, Sabina Spielrein, listed among her symptoms regular visits from a German-speaking angel who often directed her actions. Over the course of 10 months of treatment, Spielrein was cured but fell desperately in love with her doctor, giving their relationship an almost mystical quality in her mind. Under normal circumstances, such an occurrence, while certainly frowned upon, is unlikely to have been remembered. When the psychiatrist is Carl Jung, however, the situation is very different.

Were it not for an incredible discovery in Switzerland, all we know about Spielrein would have come from Jung’s files on his professional relationship with her (in them he freely discussed her feelings). Spielrein, however, kept all of Jung’s letters to her, along with carbon copies of everything she wrote him, and stored all of the letters in a trunk she kept with her for most of her life. This treasure trove of history was accidentally unearthed less than 30 years ago in the basement of a Palace in Geneva that once housed the city’s Psychology Institute and the letters, along with Jung’s files form the basis for Swedish director Elisabeth Marton’s 2002 documentary (just now released in the US for the first time), My Name Was Sabina Spielrein.

 

 
Shortly after Spielrein left Jung’s care she, with his encouragement, entered medical school, eventually becoming on of the world’s first female psychoanalysis. Over the course of her studies, Spielrein continued her relationship with her married psychiatrist; though he, in his words, “denied himself the pleasure of giving her a child,” Jung nevertheless did eventually confess to his patient that her returned her love, and the two embarked on a physical relationship. Troubled by the conflicts and confusions brought on by the relationship, Jung contact his mentor, Sigmund Freud, for advice. Freud, in turn, wrote to Spielrein, recommending that she repress her emotions and keep her relationship with Jung entirely to herself. Eventually, she and Freud began a length correspondence as well, possibly contributing to the famous falling out between the two men. Eventually, on Freud’s advice Spielrein left Germany - her home of nearly 25 years, and a location in which she had earned a prominent place in a thriving psychoanalytic community - for her Russian homeland. Despite her best efforts to continue her study of child development and to bring the profession of psychology to Russia, Spielrein’s star faded, and ultimately she was, like thousands of other Russian Jews, killed by the Nazis.

Spielrein was a woman of rare intellect, who bravely forced herself in a world ruled by men and, while battling inner demons we can only imagined, did precedent-setting, original work on issues like death and the development of language skills. So good was her work, in fact, that many - including Spielrein - think Jung dipped into it more than once (he was her thesis advisor as well as her confidant, and it’s painfully unlikely that the similarities between their findings are only the results of repeated coincidences) for his own articles and theses. Her story pulsates with passion (both intellectual and emotional), and is nearly derailed so many times that it mirrors the most outrageous fiction. And such a story deserves to be well-told and widely-known. Unfortunately for Spielrein and her supporters, however, My Name is Sabina Spielrein will do neither.

Marton’s movie gives voice to the letters of Freud (also found in Spielrein’s trunk), Jung, and Spielrein, and it’s fascinating to hear their words, particularly to note how easily Jung slips into the stereotypical Male voice, preaching nothing but reason and control. Marton’s insistence, however, that the letters of Spielrein be read in a desperate, breathy tone is not only distracting, but also insulting to their author. While Spielrein surely had moments when she felt the insecurity and desperate that the chosen vocal tone seems to present, it is nevertheless outrageous to suggest that she was constantly in such a precarious state. It’s as if Marton hasn’t actually read the documents on which her film is based, and is unaware of the brilliant academic at its center.

In addition, the movie’s visuals are lacking. Most of Freud’s and Jung’s letters are read while the screen is full of black and white images of their faces, often filmed in extreme close-up (Jung in particular is often identified only by one eye). While archival stills are frequently quite useful in enhancing the audience’s understanding of a documentary’s context, combining them with overly dramatic reenactments detracts significantly from their power. These scenes - most of which show Spielrein waiting for, thinking about, or spending time with Jung - are shot mostly silently, and emotion is provided by acting so extreme that it at times reminds one of the worst of silent films. In addition, the sequences are filmed with a washed-out color pallet that is obviously supposed to put viewers in mind of old, sepia-toned photographs. Unfortunately, it just looks cheap and artificial.

There are as many ways to make a documentary as there are people who undertake them, and it has been a wonderful surprise to witness their rise in popularity over the past 12 months. It’s unfortunate that the approach Marton took to Sabina Spielrein was so unworthy of her subject, because Spielrein’s story is one that could potentially do very well on the American art house circuit. Instead, My Name Was Sabina Spielrein seems doomed to a two or three city run, followed by a quiet disappearance. One can only hope that Spielrein herself will not suffer a similar fate on these shores.

My Name was Sabina Spielrein is currently playing at the Film Forum in New York.