Art of Psychiatry Society

Shock Head Soul – interview with Helen Taylor-Robinson and Clive Robinson
May 20, 2012, 9:01 pm
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.

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This film seems interesting i would like to see it

Comment by ushma kotecha

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