Freud, The Secret Passion

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The first film made about Sigmund Freud, Freud, the Secret Passion was directed by John Huston and was based on a very long script proposed by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1958 but reworked by Charles Kaufmann and Wolfgang Reinhardt (Sartre insisted that his name not appear in the credits); it featured Montgomery Clift in the role of Freud and Susannah York in the role of Cecily Koertner. Released in 1962, it was distributed in France under the title Freud, désirs inavoués.

The film tells the story of the treatment by hypnosis of an hysterical patient, Cecily, by the young Freud, who struggles to bring her into awareness of the sexual origins of her problems and runs up against hostility from those close to her. Freud almost invariably looks furious, "somber," "stiff," "ashen-faced"stuck in the shackles of his neurosis until he achieves a state of lucid Sartrean consciousness by getting rid of the protective and hated father figures with whom he had surrounded himself. Pushed by the hostility of the Viennese medical community, spurred on by anti-Semitism, he becomes "engaged," according to Sartre's ideas, in a revolutionary combat for the liberation of oppressed hysterics, unjustly called "fakers." He is constructed in the image of the author-philosopher, who was known for repeatedly taking a stand in defense of blacks, the Algerians, Jews, workers, or those who, like Jean Genet, had been labeled from childhood and condemned to be what others had designated them to be.

It is these violent external conflicts, symbolized by the three "fathers" who appearan alcoholic Theodor Meynert, a senile Jakob Freud, and a lame Josef Breuerthat for Sartre constitute the main motivation for Freud's actions, although Sartre poses an additional, underlying question: What was Freud's sexuality? The film glosses over this aspect of the script and of Sartre's explanation of Freud's violence by means of a sexual contention that remains inexplicable and unexplained. "But your Freud, he was neurotic down to the marrow!" Sartre once said jubilantly to Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (Pontalis in Sartre, 1984/1985).

On July 15, 1958, considering Ernest Jones's hagiography of Freud, Simone de Beauvoir noted in her journal: "Jones doesn't explain very well what Freud's particular neurosis was, nor how he got rid of it. Perhaps the fact that Freud's daughter is still alive embarrasses him, but there are certain questions he doesn't ask: Freud's relationship with his wife, for example. It's easy enough to say that they [sic] were 'excellent'; but Freud's depressions and migraines are either directly linked to his domestic life or they are not. Which? After all, he was an extremely vital man; witness his passionate love of travel. Monogamous, all right; but why, exactly? Jones avoids the question. . . . The most moving moment is the one where he discovers his mistake about hysteria. He had believed that all his women patients had been 'seduced' by their fathers . . . and he realized that his patients had invented it all. What a slap in the face! What a shock! . . . It is moving to watch these concepts that have become so scholastic, mechanicaltransference for examplereveal themselves in such vital experiences" (1963/1965, pp. 430-431).

In a 1965 interview, Huston confided to Robert Benayoun: "The basic idea of Freud the adventurer, the explorer of his own unconscious, was mine. I wanted to concentrate on this episode like in a detective plot." He also explained: "To me, hypnosis is something magical, almost sacred" (Benayoun, 1965).

And indeed, the hypnotic treatment and catharsis are what are presented to the public. Huston's Freud conforms to the classic movie character who, one against all, and above all, against himself, must make triumphant a truth that he reveals through pain. Despite the sugar-coatings he added to the original script, Huston had to submit to the explicit and implicit imperatives of American censorship and adapt his film to the then-dominant ideological demands of the world of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He later deplored the fact that his film had been "literally mutilated of its essential scenes" (Benayoun, 1965).

Many were concerned that Freud's image might be ruined by his promiscuity in overly shocking scenes. It was essentially Anna Freud who opposed the idea of any film on her father. It is known, for example, that through the intermediary of Marianne Kris, she convinced Marilyn Monroe (who had consulted her during a shoot in London) not to play the role of Cecily, which Huston had in mind for her, according to Donald Spoto's Marilyn Monroe: The Biography (1993). She also opposed the idea of any living member of the family being represented, which explains the childless marriage attributed to Freud onscreen. The theme of prostitution, which Sartre emphasized so constantly that it can be wondered whether this was his answer to his questions about Freud's sexuality, was also strongly challenged by Hollywood's censors, advised by some eminent psychoanalysts (Walker, 1993). At the time, as Pontalis pointed out, studies of the history of psychoanalysis were virtually nonexistent.

Although the film can be criticized on many counts, its great merit must be acknowledged; it helped to shatter the conventional portrait of an old, stern, bespectacled, and white-bearded Freud. Even though it may seem artificial, excessive in the grimaces and wounded looks given by Montgomery Clift, the character seen onscreen made it possible, in its day, to imagine a Freud who was closer to the young viewers discovering him for the first time.

See also: Cinema and psychoanalysis; France; Sartre and psychoanalysis.


Beauvoir, Simone de. (1965) Force of circumstance: The autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir (Richard Howard, Trans.). New York: Putnam. (Original work published 1963)

Benayoun, Robert. (1965). Interview de John Huston. Positif, 70.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1999). Freud and the psychoanalytic situation on the screen. In Endless night. Cinema and psychoanalysis: Parallel histories (pp. 188-199). Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. (Original work published 1994)

Sartre, Jean Paul. (1985). The Freud scenario (Quinton Hoare, Trans.). London: Verso. (Original work published 1984)

Spoto, Donald. (1993). Marilyn Monroe: The autobiography. New York: Harper-Collins.

Walker, Janet. (1993). Couching resistance: Women, film, and psychoanalytic psychiatry, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.