Neighbours: Freud and Hitler in Vienna

Norbert Ruebsaat

We were watching the dead on film. Fuzzy pictures of an old Sigmund Freud jumped along the streets of Vienna, where carriages and a few box-shaped autos bumped pell-mell over cobbled streets. Freud had a white beard, trimmed neatly along his jaw; it was said that his upper jaw was rotting away, and the foul smell emanating from this mouth caused even his intimates to avoid getting too close to him. Adolf Hitler is the second man examined in the film Neighbours: Freud and Hitler in Vienna by Manfred Becker, which played recently at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver. Both the narrator of the film and the psychologist who spoke after the screening (who claimed that she was not “a Freudian” even though the early Freudian theories could easily be read with contemporary eyes) said that Hitler grasped control of a nation’s unconscious and led it into demagoguery. It was unclear how the man in question—a painter, then a vagabond, then the resident of a boarding house located a few blocks and around one corner from the house at 19 Bergstrasse, where Freud famously lived and worked—became a national leader. The film claimed that the two men were neighbours, although it was unlikely that they had met. “Hitler” (one wants, for some reason, to put the name in quotation marks) grasped a nation’s unconscious in the palm of his hand, which he then formed into a fist, and in the locutions of his voice, which, unlike that of Freud, we could hear while watching the historical footage. The voice of the people of the grasped nation sang together in the group voice that one imagines the collective unconscious might produce were it left untouched. The nation “Hitler” conquered marched “blindly into death,” which was perhaps represented by the grainy footage in which these people walked and marched and sang, and into whose flickerings they sometimes disappeared, only to reappear again seconds later at a slight remove; at times I imagined that my grandfather, who was alive at the time the footage was taken, might appear in the background. The psychologist said that Freud had “renounced” his early theories and moved on to other ones, most importantly the Oedipal theory that sons want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers. The film claimed that “Hitler” indeed hated his father, who had beaten him and his mother savagely and regularly, and that when he and the soldiers of his nation conquered the country in which Vienna is located, he had had the soldiers of the Wehrmacht bulldoze his father’s grave. Freud, on the other hand (said the psychologist), believed that one could heal madness by calling to consciousness those childhood experiences that had caused more pain than a child’s mind could contain and reasonably explain. The psychologist said she no longer believed the claim that one could be “cured by talking.” She recalled the theories of Carl Jung (Freud’s principal adversary and former ally), who also appeared in the film, and she suggested that Jung’s theories about myth and shadow narrative might be more in keeping with today’s way of thinking.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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