Streaming Dr. Freud: Netflix Will See You Now

By Jack Truschel (trujp@udel.edu) and Sarah Wasserman (swasser@udel.edu)

Warning: this essay contains spoilers for the 2020 Netflix series, Freud.

Actor Robert Finster as Sigmund Freud. He broods against a black background, with a cloud of smoke rising from his cigarette.
Robert Finster as Sigmund Freud

The world, at present, is looking for a cure. Every day we hear of different possibilities, some more plausible than others: a pharmaceutical cocktail, a fervently-hoped-for vaccine, the distant horizon of herd immunity. We long not only for something that will cure the Coronavirus, but also for something to alleviate our fear, our doubt, our uncertainty about the world and our place in it. So perhaps there could be no better time for Netflix to release Freud, a show based on the man who invented the vexed but enduring “talking cure.” But to say Freud is about Sigmund Freud, or about psychoanalysis, is a bit like saying that Tiger King is about tigers, or, for that matter, kings. In giving us a “Freud” who uses his psychoanalytic powers to solve a series of murders linked to a Hungarian nationalist conspiracy, the series occupies an uneasy middle ground between serious biopic and the abject absurdity of, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Freud descends into absurdity and uncanniness in every episode, but the historical Freud hovers around the show’s edges, pulling it back from the brink. In this respect, too, the series is inadvertently timely, coming at a moment when each morning’s newspaper presents a serious challenge to the ego’s function of “reality-testing.”

The first season of the Austrian-German series, created by Marvin Kren, Stefan Brunner, and Benjamin Hessler, aired on Netflix on March 23. Filmed in Prague but set in Vienna in 1886, the show stars Austrian actor Robert Finster as a smoldering young Sigmund Freud, struggling to pay his debts and convince his colleagues at the academy that his brand of hypnosis works. What begins as a quirky revisionist biopic featuring Freud as a cocaine-addicted young doctor striving to overturn his reputation as a “Jewish charlatan” swerves into even stranger territory when two police inspectors deliver a mutilated sex worker to Freud’s desk, desperate for a doctor to treat her fatal wounds. The woman’s murder, the first in an increasingly grisly series, is ultimately connected to a hydra-headed plot involving a sinister count and countess and their ward, a Hungarian spirit medium just as smoldering as Freud. Played by Swiss actress Ella Rumpf, the medium goes by Fleur Salomé, a name that suggests she is both tender blossom and biblical temptress. She also stands in for the real-life Freud’s friend, the Russian psychoanalyst, writer, and muse, Lou Andreas-Salomé. An iconic muse for Nietzsche, Rilke, and other intellectuals, Andreas-Salomé is a historical figure ripe for her own smoldering television series.

Ella Rumpf as Fleur Salomé in a still from the show. She stands in front of Freud and the two inspectors.
Ella Rumpf as Fleur Salomé in a still from the show. She stands in front of Freud and the two inspectors.
Ella Rumpf as Fleur Salomé

But the parallels between Fleur and the real-life Salomé are quickly exhausted. Over the first few episodes, it emerges that Fleur has supernatural powers and that she is somehow, through spectacular seancés and blood-soaked sex rituals, causing men to enter fugue states in which they enact their darkest, most violent fantasies. And, as it turns out, Fleur herself is in need of Dr. Freud’s cure — the Countess is in fact the arch villain, harnessing Fleur’s powers through hypnosis to create a small army of men who will carry out a political insurrection against the Austrian Emperor. The murders are the result of the plan gone awry — men who have succumbed to Fleur’s powers but whose subconscious wishes are so dark, so animalistic, that rather than awaiting the command to act in political concert against the emperor, they carry out personal crimes while in a somnambulistic state. Freud can help because he can hypnotize; the young doctor more or less stumbles his way into the skill and discovers that with a swaying pocket watch, a laying on of hands, and an incantation, he can lead Fleur and other troubled patients back to buried scenes of primal trauma. Under Freud’s hypnosis, the patient confronts the forbidden desires and repressed memories so that they are no longer expressed as symptoms.

Where Fleur’s power allows her to see the future in the form of the grisly crimes her victims commit, Freud’s skill enables him to access the past. Together, they form an unlikely (but predictably steamy) pair, merging their insights to solve the crimes that Fleur has set into motion and to free the killers from their murderous dazes. Their pairing has the effect of collapsing the difference between psychoanalysis and telepathy, so that Freud’s treatments seem as supernatural as the Fleur’s ability to harness the powers of the “Táltos,” a mythical figure from Hungarian folklore. For instance, when Freud uncovers the trauma that has caused a police inspector’s psychosomatic paralysis, the cure is as dramatic as an exorcism. Freud’s final magic act is to hypnotize Fleur and bring her back to the horrible moment in which she discovered she was (or was possessed by) the Táltos, which can then be effectively exorcised. “The show is about hypnotism” and “the show is about mysticism” are, at once, contradictory and mutually interdependent points. This associative link between Freud’s thought and the occult speaks to Freud’s shadowy place in the collective imagination. Was he, as his colleagues accuse him at the show’s outset, pushing theories as dubious as mesmerism or clairvoyance?

The show brings viewers to the heart of this tension in its final episode, entitled “Suppression.” The choice to translate the German title, “Verdrängung,” this way instead of with its more common variant “repression,” is odd — but perhaps logical given that the season wraps with an active curtailment, something stronger than the maintenance of control or the regulation of order. After Freud has solved the murders, saved the Emperor, and cured Fleur, he sits down and pens a treatise explaining the force of the unconscious and the powers of hypnosis — a book that he claims will be his magnum opus. But the Emperor and his henchmen intervene. The story can never be told, the manuscript must be burned, and Freud must begin again, finding new patients and a new language for his theories. By destroying the evidence of the occult story, “Freud” becomes historical Freud. The show suggests that its Freud is the repressed past of the actual Freud who opened his private practice at Berggasse 19 in 1891. We might catch a glimpse of the show’s imagined Freud in fleeting references to hypnosis, like the one in his 1915 essay, “The Unconscious,” where he writes: “As it happens, hypnotic experiments, and especially post-hypnotic suggestion, had demonstrated tangibly even before the time of psychoanalysis the existence and mode of operation of the unconscious in the mind.” The show fictionalizes this “before the time of psychoanalysis” and fills it with spectacular, supernatural images, playing on the feeling shared by many today that Freud’s ‘science’ was always more mystical than empirical, more smoke and mirrors than medicine.

A black and white photograph of Freud’s Vienna Office in 1937 showing the couch where his patients lay for analysis.
A black and white photograph of Freud’s Vienna Office in 1937 showing the couch where his patients lay for analysis.
Freud’s Vienna Office, photographed by Edmund Engelman in 1938

The trouble is, if this Freud is the one that must be repressed for the historical Freud to emerge, then by the show’s own logics, an occult underbelly is what gives psychoanalysis its power. For, as a voiceover declares in the final episode, it is “the power of the unconscious mind” that drives us: “What we really want in the deepest parts of us will come to us, for better or for worse. Or, the other way around, we can maintain that what a person has become was, in reality, their deepest desire.” The show stretches Freud’s real insight about the power of the unconscious so that here, what is repressed will always resurface. Our desires inevitably emerge, escape, and define us from without. We “become” what we desire, and, reciprocally, our desires are made knowable to us through what we have become. According to this fictionalized version of psychoanalysis, then, whatever happens in the show’s last episode is only window dressing on the Real of the blood orgies, mind control, and Hungarian demons that have come before. To say that the show might not quite realize that it makes this claim is, ironically, to point out what is most Freudian about the series.

As it turns out, what the show finds more terrifying than mysticism and murder is the insight that comes closest to Freud’s most meaningful contribution to the modern ideas of subject and psyche: not that we become our deepest desires, but that so many of them remain, in fact, unknown to us. “I am a house,” the show’s Freud explains to a disbelieving audience of his medical colleagues. “It is dark in me. My consciousness is a lonely light.” Here, the show’s Freud bears at least a superficial resemblance to the historical Freud, who writes in 1917 that “the ego is not master in its own house.” But the show backs away from embracing the full import of this assertion: though evil may lurk within us, it is more often outside, in the shape of an evil countess, a mythical demon, or a political conspiracy. In one noteworthy scene, as Fleur writhes in the grip of her demonic possession, she exclaims: “I am not myself!” And she’s right, of course. With Freud’s help, she will cast off her Táltos and become herself again. In this way, the series manages to take the foundational Freudian insight of the terror within (“I am not myself!”) and displace it onto something external (demonic possession). Freud would describe this process as a phobic projection — when an internal, instinctual impulse threatens one’s sense of self, it must be expelled from the psyche. The anxiety attached to the impulse can then be experienced as something “other,” something “not myself.” Ultimately, then, the show’s deepest fantasy has less to do with murderous instincts or incestuous desires than it does with escape: I can shirk my unconscious and become “myself” again. I am master in my own house.

Watching Freud during a pandemic, when those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to stay at home must, the metaphor of the house, and of not recognizing exactly who we are within its walls, assumes special resonance. The show presents endless images of people trapped: immobile patients trapped in ailing bodies, girls trapped in the catacombs of Vienna’s canals, men and women trapped in atavistic steam devices in the basement of the psychiatric clinic, Fleur as a child trapped behind a door as she hides from violent soldiers. Even scenes of decadence invoke immobility: a bound mummy used in a séance, party-goers frozen in tableau vivant parlor games. Apt fodder for viewers trapped at home, stuck with and in themselves. Who would blame us for seeking an escape? Soon this will end; I will go outside; I’ll be myself again. In the meantime, and with no one to release us from ourselves, we turn to Freud. In the first episode, an established doctor dismisses the young Freud’s techniques by chiding, “He calls it therapy, I call it theater.” What we know in the present moment, is that television, of course, can be both. We are in the dark, our screens a lonely light.

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