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Freud and Jung: A Meeting of Minds

As David Cronenberg reveals he is to make a film about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Arifa Akbar analyses the relationship between psychiatry's biggest brains

It is perhaps ironic that when Sigmund Freud – who lived by the psychoanalytic theory that sexual desire was the prime motivator for human beings – found out his young protégé, Carl Jung, was having an extra-marital affair with a pretty patient at a mental hospital, he was damning of it.

It was at the turn of the 20th century when the father of psychoanalysis discovered Jung – a married young doctor – was embroiled in an improper sexual liaison with Sabina Spielrein, a 22-year-old Russian who was first admitted as a patient to the Swiss hospital at which Jung worked, and later became one of his most brilliant students, and committed lover.

The revelation caused a schism in the men's friendship that would deepen into personal and professional estrangement in years to come when Jung announced a departure from Freudian psychoanalytic thought and launched his own school of analysis based on dream theory, the collective unconscious and spirituality.

Spielrein's highly charged presence in their lives is now to set the scene for a new film, A Dangerous Method, by the acclaimed director, David Cronenberg, in which Keira Knightley will play the role of Jung's lover, the unsung heroine of psychoanalysis whose own brilliant theories – in spite of her mental fragility – influenced both Freud's and Jung's ground-breaking works.

The director, who is known for his edgy, stylised treatment of stories such as his film adaptation of William S Burroughs' book Naked Lunch, is preparing for a radical interpretation of the fractious triangular friendship. It is being billed as a "dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery drawn from true-life events". Cronenberg, who first had the idea four years ago, said he had "long been drawn to the story of erotic daring between these two good doctors and the woman who both divided and defined them".

The film will star Michael Fassbender as Jung, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud, who at the time was grappling with many of the neuroses on which he wrote so extensively. A decade earlier, Freud had begun experiencing numerous psychosomatic disorders and exaggerated fears of dying.

The screenplay is to be written by Christopher Hampton, and based on his 2002 stage play, The Talking Cure. Hampton described it as a "true story of the obsessive love affair which played so fateful a role in the pioneering days of psychoanalysis". Shooting will begin next month in Vienna and Lake Constance, and it is due to be in cinemas from next spring.

Jeremy Thomas, the film's producer, said while Spielrein may now be largely forgotten internationally, she was still a "much admired and important figure in Russia today". He said: "In this film, she will be presented as a rather brilliant character, not a victim at all, but a winner. I'm very excited as the film will make psychoanalysis more accessible. It is not usually a topic for popular culture but it is a very important school of thought from the 20th century."

The drama will offer a 10-year snapshot of their friendship triangle, starting from Spielrein's entry to the asylum. Born 1885 to a family of a Jewish doctors in Rostov, Spielrein was admitted to the Burghölzli mental hospital near Zürich, in August 1904, where Jung, who had wed two years previously, worked. She remained there for almost a year and established a deep emotional relationship with Jung who was later her medical dissertation advisor.

A fellow psychoanalyst discovered Jung's breach of professional ethics and he was promptly dismissed from the Burghölzli. Spielrein was later discharged as a patient, wrote a dissertation about schizophrenia, and was elected a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. She continued to work with Jung until 1912 and met Freud in Vienna, before returning to Soviet Russia to get married.

The intense friendship between Freud and Jung began around the same time as the affair when Jung, then 30, sent his "Studies in Word Association" to Freud, then 50, in Vienna. The first conversation between them is reported to have lasted more than 13 hours.

Six months later in 1905, Freud sent a collection of his latest published essays to Jung in Zürich, which marked the beginning of an intense correspondence and collaboration that lasted six years. But growing intellectual differences saw Jung resign as the chairman of the International Psychoanalytical Association, to which he had been elected with Freud's support, in May 1910.

The early books of Carl Jung contain theories that chime with Freud's, but by 1912 he had published a theory about the psychology of the unconscious, from which it became clear that his thoughts were taking a different direction from Freudian psychoanalysis, which he called "analytical psychology".

While Spielrein is not often given more than a footnote in the history of the development of psychoanalysis, her conception of the sex drive as containing both an instinct of destruction and an instinct of transformation, which she presented to the Society in 1912, anticipated both Freud's "death wish" and Jung's views on "transformation". She may thus, it is believed by some, have inspired both men's most creative ideas. When Jung had first met Spielrein, he was a fledgling psychiatrist who was very much under the influence of the older, wiser Freud's pioneering theories of psychoanalysis.

While Freud was said to have been censorious about Jung's affair, the latter was also meddlesome in his friend's love life. He is believed to have spread the rumour of a romantic relationship between Freud and his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who had moved into Freud's apartment in 1896. Their names appeared in a Swiss hotel log, dated 13 August 1898. Some Freudian scholars regard this as a factual basis for those rumours.

Theories of the mind

Sigmund Freud

The Jewish-Austrian neurologist who founded the psychoanalytic method of psychiatry. Freud is best known for his theories of the unconscious mind and for creating the clinical practice of psychoanalysis through dialogue between a patient. Freud is also renowned for his redefinition of sexual desire as the primary motivational energy of human life, although he once famously remarked: 'The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is "What does a woman want?"' While some of Freud's ideas have fallen out of favour or been modified, he is considered one of the most prominent thinkers of the first half of the 20th century and still has many devotees.

Carl Gustav Jung

The Swiss psychiatrist was the founder of analytical psychology (also known as Jungian psychology). He has become known as a pioneer in the field of dream analysis. Although he was a practising clinician, much of his life's work was spent exploring Eastern philosophy, alchemy and astrology. In 1906, he published Studies in Word Association and later sent a copy of this book to Freud, and a close friendship followed for some six years. In 1912, Jung published Psychology of the Unconscious, resulting in a theoretical divergence from Freud and consequently a break in their friendship, with both stating that the other was unable to admit he could possibly be wrong. The experience is likely to have been welcomed by Jung, as he once said: 'Thing that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.' He also belieced that 'the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.'