Secrets of a Soul
he German film director G.W.Pabst was responsible for several of the great classics of early cinema, in particular Pandora's Box and Kameradschaft. This afternoon the National Film Theatre showed a remarkable film of his which used to be often quoted in film textbooks, but is rarely seen: Secrets of a Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele) (1926).
Despite its fame, it's in fact more interesting for what it was than what it is - it seems rather slow and naïve now, but it was the first film to tackle Freudian analysis of dreams - at that time a fairly new concept to the general public. Later films such as Spellbound used the technique of interpretation of dreams, and their ability to retrieve buried memories which are causing mental illness, to drive a thriller plot: Secrets of a Soul examines a single case history and shows how the analysis uncovers the cause of a phobia.
Though it's slow to unfold, and seems rather glib and easily solved, the illness was based on a real case, and considerable care seems to have been taken to stick to the medical facts: the subtitles stress that the process lasted many months, but inevitably cinematic storytelling tends to leave the impression that it all happened quite quickly.
The patient, played by Werner Krauss, has developed a phobia of knives and razors, and find himself struggling with a desire to murder his wife by stabbing, despite loving her. We see a dream he has - realised by clever use of multiple exposures and distorting lenses - with disturbing and apparently inexplicable images. He goes to a psychiatrist (Pawel Pawlow): we see the dream again, in sections, as the psychiatrist examines it and gradually uncovers the reasons - an unfulfilled desire for children, an incident in his childhood, and so on - eventually effecting a cure.
It's well done, though it does take a long time to establish the characters and show the development of the illness (preferable, though, to Hollywood's shorthand for mental illness - fingertips placed on the temple and a worried look, followed promptly by a full-scale breakdown) and the final idyllic scene in the countryside showing the couple with a baby is rather obviously tacked-on; it's an honest attempt to tackle a difficult and then little-understood process, and an important piece of cinema history.
Posted: Sun - April 4, 2010 at 07:13 PM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM