One of the pleasures of seeing a film about a famous person before they became famous is that you feel like you’re one up on everybody in the movie, including the protagonist. Watching some condescending personage, bloated with self-importance, belittle or dismiss our hero you think, “ha, ha, that’s Freud, you schmuck — and you’re just a footnote, if that.” And, of course, since Freud himself doesn’t realize that he’s Freud yet, we view his stumbling and self-doubts with the patient indulgence of visitors from a wised-up future. We know how the story ends and can only marvel at its humble beginnings.
Young Dr. Freud is a black-and-white film made for Austrian TV in 1976. As directed by Axel Corti, it avoids or outflanks the expected pitfalls of a period-piece biopic, being neither stilted nor static, having instead a briskly paced semidocumentary feel. The script, by Georg Stefan Troller, is literate and subtle.
Young Freud (Karlheinz Hackl) is presented as a quietly eccentric outsider on the make, someone whose ability to rise in the late-19th century Viennese medical establishment is proscribed both by his Jewishness and his natural skepticism, and who thinks that his exhaustive study of the odd reproductive organs of eels is not going to put him on the map. He’s drawn to the controversial study of hysteria, which he suspects has more than just a physiological basis and — even more heretical — is an ailment that can be found in men as well as women.
Periodically, everything stops as Freud is questioned by an off-screen voice (Troller). Significantly, his answers tend to be vague — it’s not as if he knows exactly what he’s doing. The impression one gets is of a piercing intelligence slowly cutting its way through a fog of prejudice and ignorance, and inching toward the conceptual leaps which would come to define the modern sense of self.
Even non-Freudians should be impressed by the way Corti and Troller give this story of intellectual blossoming a sense of urgency and importance.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].