Filed under: Film
At a recent meeting we held a screening of the film Shock Head Soul which is about the experiences of Paul Schreber who, at the turn of the 20th century published a famous account of his experiences of (what others saw as) mental disorder. Afterwards Helen Taylor-Robinson (psychoanalyst and fellow of the Institute of Psychoanalysis London) and Clive Robinson (psychiatrist) talked about their work on the film, with which they were both involved.
They’ve kindly answered some questions for this website which give a flavour of the film’s subject matter and themes.
FP: Can you tell us about the film and how it tells Schreber’s story?
HTR & CR: The film is an imaginative drama documentary based on the German judge Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1903). The film is in narrative form, set in the period of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. It depicts the key episodes of Schreber’s illness, his admission into care and treatment, and his subsequent release by the courts, after his plea on his own behalf (through the Memoirs) to be allowed his freedom, even though he continues to be unwell.
Alongside the narrative, and woven into it, are sections of commentary brought to bear on important questions regarding Schreber and his condition, which several experts from the fields of present day psychiatry, neuro psychiatry, psychoanalysis, the arts and film history contribute to the debate about mental illness and its treatment and care. These experts are dressed in 19th century costume as if they were part of Schreber’s time, though they comment with the expertise of today. This blurring of time past with time present was a deliberate choice in making the film, in order to provide consistency with the way in which the various forms used in the film (documentary, animation, drama) are allowed to ‘bleed’ one into the other. This echoes an aspect of DP Schreber’s experience, where ‘reality’, ‘imagination’, and ‘delusion’ blend, interweave and collide and he struggles to make sense of it all. It also felt important to position the ‘expert’ commentators of today as somewhat in the same position as the experts of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. That is, they are attempting to provide explanations, and suggest treatments based on the level of knowledge and understanding available. Our twenty first century knowledge may be more advanced in some respects, but it does not give us a definitive understanding, or a solution to many of the problems faced by Schreber, his family or the psychiatrists involved in his care. What we knew in the past about mental illness, its effects, and the most appropriate way of behaving towards someone like DP Schreber, may today appear to be better informed, may overlap with or may differ from then, but it continues to pose open and problematic questions.
Sections of the film also use animation to depict some aspects of Schreber’s delusional systems. Again the aim is to represent some aspects of the alternative reality experienced by someone in his situation and the suffering of those immersed in powerful internal processes. The viewer is subject to these ‘creations’ to some extent, as is Schreber. These animations form the basis of a separate art installation that has been staged alongside special screenings of SHS. The literal reality of these works of the imagination, conceived from the Memoirs by Simon Pummell the director, serves again to give weight and credence to the experience Schreber underwent.
Thus, the whole film is a complex interweaving of all these modes of communication with the viewer to try and engage affectively with Schreber’s circumstances—his detailed highly articulated personal autobiographical account of his visions/delusions and what he took them to represent. As a multi media work, Shock Head Soul, is a visual testament to the man and his belief system, a strange tableau of madness, and our responses to it, re-imagined.
FP: How did you come to be involved?
HTR: As a psychoanalyst (HTR) I had worked with Simon Pummel the film’s director some time ago when a film animation symposium was organized at the National Film Theatre where I commented with others (including Professor Ian Christie who also appears as an expert in SHS) on Simon’s work and that of another film animator Ruth Lingford. I have had an interest in the relationship of psychoanalysis to the arts over many years, and in particular to film, since the inception, in 2001, of The European Psychoanalysis and Film Festival (EPFF) that is held biennially at BAFTA by the British Psychoanalytic Society and to which I, and fellow psychoanalysts, film makers, performers and academics and have regularly contributed.
Simon got in touch about this project of his, something he has wanted to do for many years and together we worked, initially, the two of us, on the idea of the film, the background research for it, the seeking of funding and the working on several screenplays to completion, and I brought in my colleagues, including my husband, Clive Robinson, a Consultant in general psychiatry, and I prepared the questions with Simon for them to answer on screen. I am described as developing the concept of the film with Simon its director. We really enjoyed filming the interviews on screen with Simon and his crew—and then Simon shot the narrative with his actors, developed the animation and the art installation and the film went to the Venice Film Festival and the London Film Festival (2011) and the Rotterdam Film Festival (2012) and it continues its festival tour to the Czech Republic and Australia and then the UK this autumn.
I, and my husband and our colleagues have really enjoyed working in quite a different way on this film project, learning slowly what was wanted, and I have felt privileged to be asked to be involved. Psychoanalysts, despite Freud’s (among others) case study of Schreber which is part of our training and development, do not usually work with the floridly mentally ill, and they certainly do not (usually) become part of the creation of a film process—certainly not one as complex and, in my view, as original as this one!
FP: How is the Schreber case relevant today?
HTR & CR: Probably very few young trainee psychiatrists will read a first hand account of being as unwell mentally as DP Schreber is. Many psychoanalysts will only have read Freud’s commentary on Schreber, not his own memoirs, which this film is about. Sociologists, philosophers, professors of cultural studies, and others with political motives have focused on Schreber’s document, to make the case for a given aspect of interest to them, which Schreber’s story allows for—lends itself to one could say. Artists and writers, also, and those studying the religious aspects of Schreber’s delusional system, have something to say about this multi faceted document of madness—because there is so much first hand graphic detailed writing about an incomprehensibly mad experience that has very little apparent connection to our so called reality. To be with Schreber and try to follow him in his labyrinthine world is to submit to a very disturbing process. Yet Schreber makes his highly controlled vision available, powerful and immediate, even if, largely, ‘deadly’ to be in.
For most psychiatrists, and others in mental health services who spend time with seriously unwell people in their clinics or on the wards, many aspects of DP Schreber’s experience and behaviour will seem familiar. However, this kind of protracted and persistent monologue of madness is much less likely to occur nowadays, and his ability to represent his world in such an organized albeit complex fashion is far more unusual. In the twenty first century it would be extremely rare for someone to have Schreber’s type of experience without receiving very active interventions and treatment; at the very least the reasoning world would be much more likely to interrupt the experience continually and therefore dilute and diminish its power. Schreber’s story—in his memoirs—is unadulterated and horrifying, yet he is able to present it, and explain it, and account for it, on his own unquestioned terms. It allows all of us to try to imagine what it is like to be continually in the grip of something we usually have no access to whatever. This in itself is educative. But it also highlights the richness of our own less mad world and the riches of a different kind–that of Schreber’s. Should we not try to see such a different ‘other’ reality and discuss and debate and try to understand what we can from it?
In a sense independent of the actual content of his experience, once Schreber becomes unwell, the impact of the change in his behaviour on those around him, his changed position in the wider society, the question as to whether society has any right to interfere, where to treat him, whether to force treatment upon him, and when to allow him his liberty are as pertinent now as at the end of the nineteenth century.
FP: Which is most important, Schreber’s memoirs or Freud’s interpretation?
HTR & CR: As the film, SHS, points out all of us engaging with this subject of Schreber, are engaging with a text, not with a person and his experiences in situ, and we have no access to the actual events Schreber writes of—we have only his account. And Freud when he came to study the published Memoirs of Schreber, was doing so under the influence of Jung who was exploring the psychoses, and with a remit to further develop psychoanalytic ideas in relation to the psychoses, and to continue to refine his theories of psychic structures, to go on building his metapsychology. For Freud, without Schreber in the room to discuss all this with, in the give and take of an analytic process, as he states, his study is a severely limited kind of exploration—a nonclinical one—a theoretical one at a particular point in his own, that is, Freud’s, growth.
As to whose document, Schreber’s or Freud’s is most important, one can only answer from the perspective of the model of mind one is currently using to look at either. For psychoanalysts, like myself (HTR), we are reading and learning about a stage in psychoanalytic development—learning about the workings of paranoia, of grandiosity, of narcissism, of projection and repression, and Freud is an eloquent teacher, even if these ideas do not fit Schreber perhaps so well today, when we psychoanalysts have taken our discipline further. But the Schreber case by Freud is a piece of the history of psychoanalytic development, and, as such, is important reading for us. Inflected by reading Schreber’s memoirs themselves I would say—as John Steiner in his paper on Schreber does—(he uses Schreber’s writings AND Freud’s to go forward with his ideas drawn from psychoanalytic thinking of today)– the student psychoanalyst of the present, or indeed any other serious student of the mind, may judge and evaluate Freud’s work and that of Schreber’s together.
For those interested in other models of the mind, in literary, philosophical, political, social or indeed psychiatric frames of reference, Schreber’s memoirs are primary, Freud’s secondary. Overall Schreber’s testament as a statement about what it is to be human and suffer in this way is highly and disturbingly original—in that sense it has import beyond Freud’s case study. For psychiatrists the text of DP Schreber provides the working document of someone struggling with all his intellectual powers, with all the structure provided by his legal training and with his very considerable personal strength, to make sense of his experience and the meaning of his life.
FP: How was the film’s title decided on?
HTR: One of the features of this film was the interest in Schreber’s father, Moritz Schreber who was an educationalist who developed ideas and practical equipment for the controlling and rearing of children in Germany—he was held in very high esteem and his methods and equipment were tried out on his son and were very popular indeed throughout the land. They may appear barbaric in conception and application to our eyes—and yet at the time were acceptable ways of trying to manage the impulses and primitive behaviours of young children. As well as attempts to control the body, the control of conduct and morality was disseminated by such very popular children’s illustrative books like Strewwelpeter,(by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann) which means ‘shock headed peter’ in which a boy is denigrated for leaving his hair and his nails to grow long and dirty—these are cautionary tales with vivid words and pictures– to frighten or shame a child into obedience, cleanliness, tidiness, and more.
Although one of the views of Schreber is that a lot of the content of his delusions may owe something to his father’s physical treatment of him, for his own good as it were, the question of its arising directly from this environmental impingement is another matter. Did Schreber senior bring about Schreber junior’s psychotic breakdown? This is speculation as we now know more of the likely organic sources of the psychoses rather than as a result of external forces. But ofcourse those external forces come into play in the psyche’s use of them as the illness develops.
So it was thought that the popular children’s book (quoted directly in SHS where a child’s thumbs are cut off for thumbsucking—and this rhyme Schreber repeats to himself in his padded cell –with a reference to his castration there in isolation and further withdrawal from others) could have its title adapted and that Schreber could be seen as the outcast or naughty boy, Strewwelpeter, with not just his body or his conduct treated with unenlightened methods, but also his soul itself—subjected to physical and intellectual methods of care within German psychiatry and its institutions. The use of this widely known text, Strewwelpeter, thus adapted, is an intended symbol—one of many compressed poetic references the film uses to tell its’ tale. In addition,, the term ‘soul murder’ is coined by Schreber (Chap 2 of the Memoirs) to refer at length to the means by which, in Schreber’s view, his soul, and that of others, at different times and for different purposes, was procured and possessed by ‘another’ in order, among other things, to prolong life for that soul at the expense of the ‘stolen’ one—to which terrible things were also required to be done.
FP: What has been the reaction to your film?
HTR& CR: I think we have been pleased that the unusual subject matter and its complex treatment has won attention, raised questions, moved and saddened audiences and overall held and engaged them. At the Venice Film Festival the question was put as to whether we feared this film would actively make people feel mad. It seems to me a question to ask—but it has not been the usual response. We hope it reflects on madness rather than engendering it—but of course it depends on the viewers and film is a very powerful medium—it is a powerful introject, to use a technical term, and it needs working on and shaping after the experience, but it is also a powerful provoker of projections—and things are attributed to it that come from the viewers rather than the film itself necessarily.
Usually people have said, in question and answer sessions after the screenings, how serious and dignified a picture it is of mental illness, those with a serious mental illness have said it felt like the most authentic account of what it is like to be ill in this way, others have been perplexed and have felt the film gives no clear or straightforward answers, and yet as those behind its creation would argue, this is a good not a bad thing—the film certainly bears viewing several times. It may be that paradoxes rather than simple yes or no answers are there to be found in the film if it can be digested slowly. And people have also said how surprising it is that such an amalgam of forms and structures and methods of film making have come together successfully into one.
We do hope that with screenings and discussions and dissemination of the ideas around Schreber, —whose work is such a complex one in its own right–that Shock Head Soul a kind of testament to the art (skill) of the insane will take off for the viewers, get challenged, debated, questioned and hopefully enjoyed also, and come to have a life of its own and a proper place in the genre of truly experimental film.
Filed under: Film
Meeting tonight – Wednesday 2nd May 2012
Screening of Shock Head Soul
Small Lecture Theatre Institute of Psychiatry 6.00pm
Followed by discussion with Helen Taylor-Robinson (screenwriter and psychoanalyst) and Clive Robinson (psychiatrist) who appears in the film.
Born in 1842 Daniel Paul Schreber was a successful German judge. In this middle age he developed delusions of control, suffering the belief that he was shifting gender and that his body was subjected to cruel ‘miracles’. He was diagnosed as having dementia praecox and spent time in an asylum.
In an effort to be judged sane enough to return to living with his wife and daughter, Schreber described his illness in his book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. This became influential in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis due to its interpretation by Sigmund Freud.
Shock Head Soul interleaves documentary interviews, fictional re-construction and CGI animation to portray Schreber’s story. The film’s mix of forms creates both a love story and a cinematic essay that explores the borderline between religious vision and deluded fanaticism, and explores the intimate link between family secrets, psychiatric diagnosis, and the limits to our contemporary understanding of mental illness.
The film is directed by Simon Pummell and was shown at both the Venice and London film festivals. More details of the film here
(Unfortunately this is not a public meeting and is for employees of the Institute of Psychiatry/South London and the Maudsley Trust and by invitation)
Filed under: Film
Michael Fassbender seems to have a thing about sex. First he appears as Brandon in Shame, Steve McQueen’s unflinching examination of disturbed sexuality and damaged relationships, and then he plays a repressed, sado-masochistic Carl Jung spanking a gasping and grimacing Keira Knightley in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which purports to explore the origins of psychoanalysis and the relationship between Jung and an omniscient, perpetually cigar-puffing, paternalistic Viggo Mortensen as Freud.
The former is by far the more successful film. I went with some reluctance, having read reviews that it was about ‘sex addiction’. In the event, it was a sensitive treatment of two broken individuals, a brother and sister (borderline personality disorder played to perfection by Carey Mulligan). Brandon acts out his internal bleakness through compulsive sexual acts both with himself and others, ultimately resorting to homosexual and orgiastic sex in self-flagellating desperation. The sex and nudity are unadorned and in the Greek sense of the word, pathetic. Eros is conspicuously absent, and when Brandon is offered the opportunity of a consensual, adult sexual relationship, he backs out in confusion and, true to the film’s title, shame.
There are no easy solutions, and no comforting explanations as to why the brother and sister ended up this way, though there are hints of significant childhood traumas, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Brandon and his sister were subject to extensive sexual and emotional abuse in childhood. All in all, it was a moving and accurate portrayal of psychopathology which was all too familiar.
‘A Dangerous Method’, co-written by Christopher (‘Dangerous Liaisons’) Hampton and based on his stage play, was not so much dangerous as dull. After a melodramatic start, in which Keira Knightley as Sabina Speilrein is forcefully carried, rigid and screaming, into a mental institution, where she is ‘cured’ by Herr Doctor’s Jung’s painstaking talking treatment, it rapidly dwindles into a cross between an inaccurate bio-pic and soft porn.
The film follows with breathless fascination, not necessarily shared by the viewer, the affair between Jung and his ex-patient, and the gentle but beautiful suffering of his gentle but beautiful wife. For good measure there are technically laboured conversations between Jung and Freud about the importance of various precepts central to their new method of treatment, which Freud has decided to call psychoanalysis, which bear as much resemblance to real clinical discussions as Dumbo does to a real elephant.
It did, however, feature lots of big psychiatry names in bit parts such as Eugen Bleuler (‘do have a go with your new treatment, Dr Jung, because my methods have failed’ – I may have misquoted a tad) and Ernest Jones, whose appearances would have significance for almost nobody apart from psychiatrists of a certain vintage. The lovely Vincent Cassel was a deliciously reprobate Otto Gross, and the cast list told us that we also caught a glimpse of the young Anna Freud, though I had no idea which one was her amongst the many Freudlets gathered round a dinner table.
To resume: Shame – compulsory viewing for all practising clinicians; A Dangerous Method – I’d prefer to take the medication.
by Dr Abby Seltzer
Picture credit: Momentum films
Filed under: Film
Medfest is a medical film festival coming up soon. They say:
In May 2011, the UKs first national medical film festival, “Medfest”, was established. Organised by a group of psychiatrists, its purpose was primarily to encourage medical students to choose a career in psychiatry, but ultimately the 9 events held around the UK drew an audience of students, health professionals, actors, filmmakers, scriptwriters, the public….. and indeed patients. It was a huge success, and was enthusiastically reviewed in “The Lancet”
MedFest is running again and in 2012 will be extending to events across 16 universities (with an anticipated audience of over 1,000) and is broadening its scope to all medical specialities. The theme this year is: HealthScreen: Understanding Illness through Film
We aim to provoke debate of the social, political and ethical implications of depictions of health and illness on our screens, not only in the form of Hollywood film, but also public health campaigns and advertisements. Such depictions are hugely powerful: When inaccurate, they can create myths and incite stigma; but when correctly presented, they have the potential to empower patient groups and dispel prejudice. We will be watching short films from The Wellcome Trust archive collection, charitably funded campaigns such as Animated Minds, and some silver screen successes and nightmares! Topics such as childhood obesity, autism, HIV and OCD will have prominent coverage.
Our diverse panellists include doctors, filmmakers, medical ethicists, social scientists and media celebrities with an interest in medicine. We look forward to welcoming the Prodcuer and Director of BBC2’s “Great Ormond Street” Simon Gilchrist, author Max Pemberton, BBC’s ‘Radio Doctor’ and GP Stuart Flanagan, film director Mat Whitecross and stand-up comedian Paul Sinha, amongst many others. All events are FREE and will take place in February and March 2012. For further details on dates, venues and much much more, please visit www.medfest.co.uk
Filed under: Film
Kathy Leichter is a documentary film producer and director. Kathy is currently in production on HERE ONE DAY, a documentary which follows Kathy’s quest to understand how living with her mother’s mental illness and losing her to suicide have impacted her and her family. The film is unfinished and Kathy is fundraising.
Here she tells us about the project. The trailer is above.
Can you tell us about the film you are making?
HERE ONE DAY is a jaw-droppingly beautiful, emotionally gripping documentary that explores the effect of my mother’s bipolar disorder and suicide on my family. The film is an intergenerational tale of discovery, an adult daughter’s coming of age story, and an exploration of how mother-loss reverberates across generations. It is also a joyous celebration of life, love, and the powerful connection between mother and child. The film documents my journey to let go of my mother after living many years with her mental illness and eventual suicide in 1995. The film also looks at mother-loss across generations in my family and my experience now as a new mother parenting my children with this legacy.
How much is this a film about a family tragedy and how much does it also seek to explore the experience of bipolar suffers today?
My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1974. What followed was a long, sometimes successful, sometimes nightmarish, struggle with various medications and a gradual, reoccurring slide from mania into depression which we describe in the film. Her experience of the illness and its effect on others is vividly portrayed. But, while HERE ONE DAY is about mental illness and suicide, all too common experiences that remain alarmingly taboo and dreadfully need more public discussion, it is also about the universal experiences we all have of holding onto and letting go of people we love, the ever-changing parent/child relationship, and how our emotional experiences, not just our biology, get passed down from one generation to the next.
How difficult has it been for you to make a film on such a personal subject?
I never thought I would ever make a personal documentary before I started this film. But then, when thinking in 2004 about my next project, I looked deep inside and knew that it was my own story that I had to tell before I could help anyone else tell theirs. There are a lot of emotional challenges that one experiences making a film like this, but I have grown from each one and learned a tremendous amount. So, the film has been a real journey of healing for me that might have happened another way but I think it happened faster and perhaps more deeply because the work is so personal. The personal subject matter also brought me closer to my family and gave us a reason to talk about this very painful, but also important experience in our lives and also a chance to look back and remember and celebrate my mother too.
You say that the film follows your family that they ‘attempt to make sense of what happened and go on with their lives’ – what ways did your family find to cope?
We all coped in different ways—some of us by sitting right in the middle of the grief and swimming around in it and some of us staying as far away from it as possible. I think everyone deals with these things in their own way and on their own time. I would like to say that we were very together around this loss, but it was a mixture. Sometimes it felt like we were dealing with it on our own like separate islands and other times it felt like a journey we were all on together. We are still coping, although it is much easier now and there is more space for joy and delight in all things.
Your mother was diagnosed as bipolar in 1974, and you are making the film nearly forty years later. Have you used a lot of cine footage?
We are using a lot of super 8 home movie footage from my family, which happens to be in great shape. It’s a terrific element and really helps Nina to come alive.
How do you see this film helping other families who are in a similar situation of that of your own?
The film has moved many to write in and share their stories, personal experiences, questions, and resources. We are already creating a vital on-line community of support and we hope to continue this once the film is finished. Ending the silence is a crucial part of mitigating the isolation many families feel. We want to show people that it is ok and even good to tell our stories. We want to shatter taboos and reduce stigma. No one should have to feel the range of feelings one feels alone. We need to talk more openly about our experiences to help raise awareness about these issues, change public perception of the mentally ill, help others to get help and bring more funding to research and other public resources.
Your film is not finished but there’s a fund raising campaign. Has it been hard to raise money for a subject such as this?
Fundraising for anything in this economy is challenging and especially for independent film. But, I believe deeply in independent media and the work we are doing so the hard work is worth it. In fact, we have been extremely successful raising funds since the film’s inception–our supporters come from all over the world! To date, there are over 300 Here One Day contributors and they are a fantastic group of people! Our fundraising has been very personal and intimate and the people who have donated really care about the themes of the film and others in the community of backers.
Though time consuming, the fundraising has connected me with wonderful people—some I knew well and some I met for the first time during this process.
Why is the June 1st deadline so important?
We have until the morning of June 1st to raise $25,000 on Kickstarter.com.
Every dollar helps to keep us in the edit room in order to finish the film. Pledges are tiered with each tier offering beautiful keepsakes and rewards depending on your donation level. If Here One Day doesn’t reach its $25,000 goal in 30 days, nobody pays and we don’t get the funds. We are under the gun to have the film completed in time for a premier screening at the American Psychiatric Association’s 63rd Institute on Psychiatric Services in San Francisco this October. The Institute will be attended by over 1,500 mental health professionals from around the globe.
It’s a perfect venue for the film.
Are there any other films or books on the subject of this film that you would recommend to the readers of this blog?
My friend, Dempsey Rice, made a great film called Daughter of Suicide. I also liked Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street which has nothing to do with suicide, but is a great personal documentary. No Time to Say Goodbye is a great book by Carla Fine as is Touched By Suicide which she wrote with Michael Myers. I also liked Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg about his daughter’s mental illness and Living a Year of Kaddish by Ari Goldman about grieving the loss of his father. I also liked In Her Wake, by Nancy Rappaport, There are many more books and films that I could mention but these are some of the ones that first come to mind.
Filed under: Film
The last temptation of Chris is a short film directed by Marcus Markou. Chris, played by Ed Stoppard, is a marriage guidance counsellor. And a very successful one judging by the size of his consultation room. One day, Nicky – his first girlfriend – walks in with her husband, looking for his help. Worth a watch.
Filed under: Film
Guardian Society reports that a film call The Veteran will be released in April. It’s co-written by Robert Craft who is an ex-soldier.
The Guardian report focuses on the mental health aspects of the film. Craft reportedly has based the lead character of The Veteran on his own experience of serving on the frontline and “fighting his demons”. The articles goes on to say that film deals with the difficulties that soldiers have in adjusting to civilian life and the psychological scars of war.
Soldier Robert Miller returns home from Afghanistan unable to fit back into society.
Finding work in the undercover surveillance of suspected terrorists, he becomes obsessed with saving a young Anglo-Asian woman from a group of fanatics . When his plan to assassinate the fanatics is sabotaged by the security services his rage spirals out of control. Taking the situation into his own hands, Robert embarks on a brutal quest for justice, with devastating consequences.
Starring BAFTA winner Toby Kebbell in a career-defining performance as Robert, the film also stars multiple award winner Brian Cox and Ashley “Bashy” Thomas. Evocative of 70′s classics such as Taxi Driver and The Conversation, The Veteran is a powerful and thrilling insight into the mind of a man who refuses to back down.
The Veteran is released on April 29 2011
I wrote a piece about PTSD some time ago which may interest.
Photo credit US Army IMCOM