Thoughts On: Secrets Of A Soul - The Psychoanalytic Film


Secrets Of A Soul - The Psychoanalytic Film

Thoughts On: Secrets Of A Soul (Geheimnisse einer Seele, 1926)

A husband is tormented by his subconscious when a neighbour is killed.

Secrets of a Soul is an awe-inspiring silent film from G.W Pabst. Pabst, an Austrian filmmaker who worked mostly in Germany, is best known for his silent films centred on women: Diary Of A Lost Girl, Joyless Street and Pandora's Box. Through these films and more he worked with, and became historically bound to, the likes of Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Asta Nielson and Leni Riefenstahl - some of the biggest names of the silent and early sound era. What's more, Pabst's films are often considered to fit among the films of the New Objectivity movement. This movement was a reactionary one, one that emerged from Germany's golden age with a plethora of other movements. Opposing the manipulation and contrivance of Expressionism, New Objectivity films attempt to be spatially, emotionally, psychologically and socially realistic. A famous example of such a film would be People On Sunday, which, as the title suggests, follows three people through an anonymous Sunday.

Secrets of a Soul is quite different from Pabst's most popular films as this is centred on a man and is hard to fully identity as a New Objectivity film. This is because Pabst employs impressionist camera movement throughout this film, usually with a moving POV that emphasises a character's joy or fear, and also steps outside of a classical cinematic space to deliver flashbacks of scenes we have already seen, but played out as if on a stage in a theatre (Pabst started working in theatre, so his inspiration here is clear). Whilst this manipulation and destruction of the cinematic space nullifies some of the realist elements of this film, this is most clearly done with the masterful elements of surrealism.

Because surrealism was an established movement with a manifesto constructed by its founder, André Breton, there is always a debate around what counts as a true surrealist film. The first 'true surrealist films' then form a short list comprised of the likes of The Seashell and The Clergyman, An Andalusian Dog, Blood of a Poet and The Age of Gold. Secrets of a Soul pre-dates all of these films, but not the founding of the surrealist movement. So, whilst this may not be a true surrealist film, instead one that incorporates elements of surrealism into itself, this can be thought as quite akin to the movement. Watching the dream sequences alone, which are, in some ways, more impressive than the likes of Blood of a Poet and The Age of Gold, this becomes very clear.

To frame this film objectively, however, it is probably best to not call this surrealist, rather, a psychoanalytic film. Whilst the surrealists were also inspired by Freud, whose work would still be quite new in the 20s as it gained momentum in the 1890s whilst Freud was still writing foundational works into the 1910s and 20s, the surrealists were also consciously an avant-garde movement who operated outside of mainstream cinema. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul is inspired by Freud, and is certainly experimental to a degree, but isn't completely avant-garde. This is because of the realism that encapsulates the film: whilst we get surreal dream sequences, it could be argued that they are also just a realist projection of psychology.

With that said, though there is a distinction that could be made between this as a surrealist or psychoanalytical film, this game of semantics is arguably trivial. I bring it up, however, because I believe this film is best discussed in regards to something such as Hitchcock's Spellbound as opposed to An Andalusian Dog. This is because Secrets of a Soul bears some of the most incredible dream sequences ever put to film.

I find that psychoanalytical films like Spellbound, A Clockwork Orange and Anti-Christ use the dream and Freudian theory in a way that bolsters their surrealism and allows for a deep exploration of character. In such, we do not just see strange dream-like happenings for the sake of it - at least, that is the sense given. The dreams drive deep into character psychology and their recognition of this reflects the Freudian philosophy of directly expressing complex, ambiguous truths. These films, like Secrets of a Soul, are bogged down, however, by a 'Psycho resolution'.

As we all know, Psycho ends with a rather unnecessary scene in which the whole movie is explained by a doctor. Most psychoanalytical films, whilst they may not end with such exposition, are often rife with it. This weighs a film down because there isn't a balanced achieved between ambiguity and story. After all, what's the point of showing a surreal sequence if it is only going to be broken down and explained in every detail? This, in my view, saps the fun and ingeniousness out of them entirely. But, whilst I think the likes of A Seashell and the Clergyman and An Andalusian Dog are masterful with their avant-garde experimentation, which offer no exposition at all, I also appreciate a filmmaker being able to show that there is structure and sense in their surreal sequences.

With Secrets of a Soul, we have a film that does not destroy the surreal magic of its dream sequences through exposition with thanks to some incredible visual exposition that uses a stage/theatre style. So, though this film does feature many dialogue cards that directly explain dreams, I think this is a staggering example of how to integrate surrealism into narrative without bogging a film down with a doctor's expository monologue. I then highly recommend Secrets of a Soul to anyone with interests in dreams, surrealism and Freud in the cinema. But, with that said, what are your thoughts on all we've discussed today? And, if you have seen it, what do you think about Secrets of a Soul?

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