“Freud” (2020-) Review

Dir. Marvin Kren; Robert Finster, Ella Rumpf, Georg Friedrich

[1.5 out of 4 Stars]

During an adventure into the nightlife of fin-de-siècle Vienna – a scene of operas, masked balls, and, in this case, a séance – a precocious young psychologist by the name of Sigmund Freud witnesses an event no theory can explain. In front of Freud (played by the Austrian actor Robert Finster), his friend Arthur Schnitzler (Noah Saavedra), and a dozen members of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, a young medium “sees” the gruesome murder of a young girl in the room, a girl who later that evening goes missing. It’s “like in a nightmare,” says a character in a later episode, a line that sums up not only the events but the logic of the show itself.

Marvin Kren’s Freud (2020-) begins in the 1880s, several years before the Viennese doctor rose to international fame. The young Freud is ignored and mocked by his peers, but carries himself with the unmistakable air of a man who knows he’s a genius. While his colleagues and mentors hold that “hysteria” is the product of an organic problem, Freud seizes upon seemingly impossible cases – a woman, for example, who shows no physical defects but is unable to move her legs or see – as proof of his theory of the unconscious. Things get a little crazy when Freud meets the psychic who saw the young girl’s death, Fleur Salomé (Ella Rumpf), who is in deeper trouble than either of them realize. Teaming up with two police officers – the gruff war veteran Kiss (Georg Friedrich) and the lovably rotund Poschacher (Christoph Krutzler) – Freud and Fleur find themselves caught in a much larger battle. Behind this mysterious crime, and several others that emerge as the show progresses, is a conspiracy plot by an aristocratic Hungarian family, Sophia (Anja Kling) and Viktor (Philipp Hochmair) von Szápáry, villains so one-dimensional in their plans to free Hungary from Franz Josef’s control that they reminded me of Pokémons (1997-) Team Rocket.

Freud isn’t exactly a show that goes “off the rails” at the end. The descent into madness occurs early in the show, creating a confusing narrative, not because of a complex structure but due to the continual reliance on flashbacks, visions, and dreams and dream-like states to create drama. Fleur’s entire story, for example, is told through flashbacks to her childhood. Watching Freud, I often wondered whether Kren was attempting to recreate Freud’s theories in narrative form. The insistence on hypnosis, nightmares, trauma, etc. – not only as subjects but as plot devices – seemed to suggest that Kren was trying to literalize Freud’s various theories. The problem is that this frequently feels like a misreading: what emerges are not Freud’s theories, but his allegories (i.e., signs taken for wonders), giving us magic, telepathy, mind-control, and an obscure ability to see the future. Any of these elements would be fine on its own, but Kren pushes the narrative further to include both hypnosis and actual magic, both medieval and modern understandings of the unconscious – and it feels messy. 

One of the most intriguing elements of the show is Kren’s broad approach to the era and his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the fin-de-siècle. Like Tom Tykwer’s Babylon Berlin (2017-), a show that brought the fascinating world of Weimar Germany to international audiences, Freud takes on an epoch and distills it into a single story. Every side of Vienna is on display here: the political, the social, the literary, the artistic, and the mystic. Kren weaves these elements together cohesively, capturing something of the Zeitgeist. Much of this has to do with the location. Shot in Vienna, Freud revels in overhead shots of the Stephansdom; chases (in a “Fiaker,” of course) through the narrow alleys of the old city; and tours of the majestic interiors of the Hofburg and Schönbrunn palaces. Kren’s Vienna feels familiar to both those who have lived there and those who know its fog and lamp-lit alleys from Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) or The Illusionist (2006).

The unfortunate side effect is that Freud often feels too familiar. Viewers of Babylon Berlin might distinguish parallels between the shows (including their opening scenes of hypnosis). Those familiar with The Alienist (2018-) will likely feel that they have already seen a version of this show set in New York – the same costumes, the same gruesome crimes. (Robert Finster even looks a bit too much like Daniel Brühl.) Finally, when you think about the big picture, it’s clear that Freud isn’t even really about Freud. A maladjusted, drug-enthused young bachelor living in the urban decline of the late 19th-century uses his observational skills to solve a criminal conspiracy that goes beyond the imagination of the local police force – despite its title character, Freud, in my opinion, is really a Sherlock Holmes story, and it is best enjoyed with the same level of suspension of disbelief as Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s 2010 reimagination. Freud, in this sense, is neither a biography nor a convincing portrayal of the doctor, nor even an accurate representation of Freudian psychoanalysis – don’t think that watching this will help you understand The Interpretation of Dreams.

The political landscape is probably less familiar to American landscapes than Freud’s legacy, but the show presents it in a digestible fashion. Late 19th-century Vienna is capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a militaristic society hostile toward the Jewish and Hungarian minorities, full of military uniforms and rules, disgraced officers and duels. But beyond this is the constant evocation of the political tensions. Freud’s Jewishness is on constant display – we see him celebrating Shabbat with his family and dealing with the thinly-veiled anti-Semitism of his peers, including his rival, a colleague named Dr. von Schönfeld (Lukas Thomas Watzl), who wears his cheek scar as a badge of honor. (In Austria and Germany, such scars were – and still are – marks of the bearer’s membership in a duelling Burschenschaft, a kind of frequently fascist fraternity.) Fleur, on the other hand, stands pars pro toto for the oppressed Hungarian population. Kren even invites a comparison between the two identities.

Unfortunately, these political struggles often drown out the personal side of the show, which feels underdeveloped. Freud’s personal and love life is on center-stage, but we rarely see more than his obvious lust for Fleur or shots of him feverishly writing in notebooks or taking cocaine. Moreover, the show takes elements from Freud’s life and spins them for dramatic and atmospheric effect, and thus away from any believability. Freud, for instance, certainly knew Schnitzler, having written a letter saying that the author seemed to have learned through intuition everything he (Freud) had to work out in studies, but the two were hardly best friends. Schnitzler (the real-life Viennese author and dramaturge) does, however, have a significant impact on the show: the scenes of the masquerade balls and particularly the more grotesque orgies are drawn from works like the Traumnovelle, which also provided the literary source for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). One of my other complaints is that we rarely hear from Freud’s fiancée, Martha (Mercedes Müller), who turns up at the end of the season to save and redeem Freud, and is arguably one of the most complicated and interesting characters in the show. 

My biggest problem, however, is that Freud seems to make a concerted effort to sanitize the more unsavory bits of Freud’s biography. In discussing Freud and his mentor Dr Breuer’s (Merab Ninidze) sexual relations with patients, the show strongly suggests that it was the female clients who made advances on their unwilling therapists. Instead of discussing Freud’s homophobia, the show presents a single gay couple – who turn out to be the bad guys. In fact, the show appears remarkably conservative, even regressive at many points. There is a startling amount of violence toward women (seriously, how much assault do you need?), which is paired with an insistence on the essential differences between the male and female characters. Kren, in an apparent attempt to return Freud firmly to the 19th-century, seems to insist on a clear dichotomy between its masculine and feminine elements. Fleur represents the uncontrollable, feminine “wildness” (thrashing about, running away, her uncontrollable sexual urges, etc.), while Freud and his theories – despite a clever quip from Martha at the end of the show about not overestimating his genitals – are linked, ultimately, to his Apollonian masculinity and his ability to tame the beast. Thus Fleur, the character with the most interesting possibilities, ends up being little more than a prop for first the Szápárys’s diabolical plan, and then for Freud’s own salvation.

Freud does show the difference between Freud’s model of therapy and the other barbaric “treatments” that were standard practice until very recently. In this light, Freud appears as the sole sane individual in all of Vienna, the only one who has ever questioned the ethics of locking patients into cages and heating chambers. He’s made out to be a Sherlock figure, maybe even a Jesus one. But it’s been done before, and done much better. 

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