From the silent era, a striking German-made depiction of
psychoanalysis, notable for its unforgettably surreal
The 1926 SECRETS OF A SOUL (GEHEIMNISSE EINER SEELE),
from Germany’s Ufa Studios, was inspired by the theories of Sigmund
Freud, and the producers sought his input in the production. Initially
reluctant to have anything to do with the film, Freud ended up giving it
a partial endorsement. The production actually caused a riff in the
psychiatric community, precipitated by its technical advisors Karl
Abraham and Hanns Sachs, both members of Freud’s inner circle (Abraham
actually provided periodic progress reports on the filming to Mr.
Freud). The controversy dissipated, though, once SECRETS OF A SOUL was
released to great acclaim.
The director was Georg Wilhelm Pabst, chosen over the
intended helmer Hans Neumann due to Pabst’s breadth of experience
(Neumann, by contrast, only had one other film credit). Other Pabst
productions include DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE/THE JOYLESS STREET (1925),
TAGEBUCH EINER VERLORENEN/DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929) and the classic
DIE BUCHSE DER PANDORA/PANDORA’S BOX (1929).
One morning a noted chemistry professor leaves his home
to discover that a woman residing next door has been murdered with a
straight razor--a razor very much like the one the professor just used
to shave himself. Later that night the professor has a dream involving a
man in a tree with a gun, a living statue, peoples’ heads ringing church
bells, giant bars obscuring the silhouette of copulating lovers, and a
The next day the professor’s wife is visited by her
dashing young cousin, the announcement of which freaks out the
professor. At dinner he’s further vexed by the sight of his butter
knife, which he can’t bring himself to pick up. The professor also
becomes hypnotized by the glint of a sword, and seized by an irrational
compulsion to kill his wife.
The following day brings good news: the murderer has
been caught! That brings no comfort to the professor, whose mental
torment continues unabated.
The professor visits a shrink, who proposes treating
him via psychoanalysis. This treatment requires being sequestered in the
doctor’s office for months, during which time the professor lays bare
his repressed memories and desires. In this way he realizes his torment
is based in past trauma, and learns to put it aside.
Much of this film now seems obvious and clichéd, if not
downright stodgy (the naive faith in psychoanalysis as a cure-all for
one’s problems in particular), but it must be remembered that it was
quite a mindblower back in 1926--and it is undeniably well-made.
G.W. Pabst’s directorial brilliance is evident in the paucity of
intertitles to move the narrative along, with the visuals doing that job
on their own--i.e. the look on the professor’s face upon learning
about his wife’s cousin moving in with them. The professor is played by
Werner Krauss (the title character of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) in
memorably befuddled fashion.
The film’s claims to fame are its starkly
expressionistic hallucination sequences, designed by Erno Metzner and
photographed by Guido Seeber. Of them, the lengthy dream that occurs
early on is compellingly nonlinear and sexually suggestive, anticipating
the erotically tinged surrealism of UN CHIEN ANDALOU and THE SEASHELL
AND THE CLERGYMAN. The sequence also recalls the pioneering special
effects of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and
L’INFERNO, although here the then-state
of the art dissolves and superimpositions are utilized to dramatize the
landscape of the subconscious--and arrestingly so. The climactic
psychoanalysis is nearly as striking, with hallucinations accomplished
through far simpler means (earlier scenes repeated over featureless
white backgrounds, etc.), though no less effectively.
I wish Pabst were more innovative in his interplay of
dream and reality, as the two states are presented in a rigidly
demarcated manner (the early dream is clearly identified as such by an
intertitle). But then, what ultimately resonates about SECRETS OF A SOUL
is its vivid and intense evocation of hallucinatory terror.
SECRETS OF A SOUL (GEHEIMNISSE EINER SEELE)
Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Producer: Hans Neumann
Screenplay: Colin Ross, Hans Neumann
Cinematography: Guido Seeber, Curt Oertel, Robert Lach
Cast: Werner Krauss, Ruth Weyher, Ilka Gruning, Jack Trevor, Pawel