Martin Fellman (Werner Krauss) is a scientist, but no ordinary man. He’s haunted by an irrational fear – a fear of knives, to be precise. Along with his fear of knives, he feels a strange urge to commit murder. The potential target? His wife (Ruth Weyher).Martin is prone to nightmares, making matters worse. Relief may be in sight when he meets a psychoanalyst who claims to have a treatment to the nightmares and odd compulsions. Will this new field of mind-studies and dream interpretation hold the key to Martin’s cure?
Directed by G. W. Pabst, this German psychological drama is known in English as Secrets of a Soul, original title – Geheimnisse einer Seele: Ein psychoanalytischer Film. I watched this film on DVD, a version released by Kino, from a very nicely-restored 35 mm print by the Munich Film Museum and the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Kino’s website reports that the film was made in collaboration with members of Sigmund Freud’s inner circle of psychologist peers.
Perhaps I’ve failed a bit at Horror Half-Week this year, including a silent film that is kinda-sorta but not totally “horror.” Apologies! Secrets of a Soul may not be as spooky as some of the films covered in previous years, but it is an influential film and certainly has its moments.
Those moments of the spook factor mostly come in the form of the brilliantly-executed nightmare sequence. (Certain parts of the sequence are replayed throughout the film.) Photographic tricks superimpose a human face on to a statue, turn ringing bells into human heads, place human beings into scientific flasks and beakers, make the very tall bars of a jail cell emerge from the ground, make a gun appear out of thin air, and give Martin the temporary ability to fly. It’s a wild and non-sensical mish-mash of odd scenes, much like an actual nightmare.Frequent praise is heaped upon the dream sequence, and for good reason, though the film in its entirety is pretty great to watch as well. Though perhaps a bit too eager to sing the praises of psychoanalysis (which was, at the time, a very new field), the film brings to life a tense tale of a disturbed mind. The film’s sets are littered with sharp objects, Martin’s very fear, which makes the sense of dread inescapable. (Beware the neck-shaving razor! Beware the gifted sword!) It’s a fascinating look at the mindset of Krauss’ character, and at the practice of psychoanalysis during its early days.
Wonderfully photographed and saturated with plenty of intrigue, Secrets of a Soul is a pretty great watch. It may not have gore and it may not have ghosts, but what’s more frightening than the intricate, uncharted territory of the human mind itself?