SecretsOfASoulFrom the silent era, a striking German-made depiction of psychoanalysis, notable for its unforgettably surreal dream/hallucination scenes.

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 demonic drummer.

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. 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.

Vital Statistics

Ufa kulturabteilung

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 Pawlow