The New York Premiere of The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich, starring award winning actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, and directed by Antonin Svoboda, received enthusiastic applause after its screening at the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. After the screening, Svoboda answered questions from the moderator and audience who were fascinated by the intriguing film. The movie uncovers aspects about Reich during the last years of his life. These are not widely known and they hint that a grave injustice was done to him by the government in its Red Scare period from 1947-1957.
Reich is considered one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry. Whether you speak with conventional medical adherents or alternative medical scientists, doctors and researchers, Reich is a controversial figure. Certainly, the film begins to clarify the man and his work attempting to put aside some of the negative rhetoric about Reich and align the forward thinking and vital aspects of Reich’s accomplishments: he noted the damaging effects of radiation (1950s); he identified the validity of Eastern medicine’s use of Chi and applied its understanding to his orgone theories.
Audience members may have had a conceptualization of Reich’s life and work based on mainstream media’s coverage of the Austrian psychoanalyst, whose work initially was built upon Sigmund Freud’s as a member of the second generation of psychoanalysts. In 1947, a freelance journalist disgruntled with psychoanalysis wrote the article “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich”(the film’s title), which appeared in The New Republic.
Reich’s work and therapies using orgone energy were mischaracterized and discredited, and he was labeled a cultist that should be “dealt with.” The article drew negative press attention, and eventually an FDA investigation into his beneficial claims of orgone energy use, which led to his eventual arrest. Four years after Reich’s death, New York publisher Farrer, Giroux and Strauss republished Reich’s major works. Along with the publishing of his books, interested physicians and researchers organized study groups and an associate, Dr. Elsworth Baker (1903-1985), set up the bi-annual Journal of Orgonomy, which is still published today. In 1968 Baker founded the American College of Orgonomy in Princeton, New Jersey, to train physicians in orgonomic therapy.
Svoboda and Rebecca Blasband have written a screenplay that explicates Reich’s “strange case” by moving through important events in his life, though not in chronological order. The film begins with Reich in the Arizona desert using a “cloudbuster” he has developed to test its impact on climate change. We learn during the course of the film, he has used it successfully elsewhere and wants to gauge whether the success will be able to be duplicated under the more extreme desert conditions. From this initial introduction, we understand Reich is a researcher of great curiosity, openness and inventiveness.
The arc of the film cobbles together episodes from the past, switching to the present to allow us to piece together his story like a puzzle, which eventually becomes whole by the film’s end. The plot movement is revelatory, interesting. The intricacy is appropriate because human beings are supremely complex, especially ones who are controversial, forward thinking and perhaps brilliant. The filmmaker’s tone is one of fairness desiring to “give Reich his due” and this method of story telling is powerful, mysterious and moment to moment, trumping the linear chronology of the usual bio-pic for the unusual. It is somehow appropriate for this “strange” man who perhaps was not so strange after all.
After the initial scene in the desert, the film moves to a flashback of a young Reich speaking before an illustrious group of colleagues presenting his controversial findings; they groan and sigh loudly in response to his discussion. Thus, began the schism between himself and the psychoanalytic community with which he was once unified. With this brief presentation and his medical fellows’ negative responses, the filmmaker references that from the 1930s onward, Reich became an increasingly controversial researcher and psychoanalyst who was assiduous in not resorting to group think, inflexibility or slavish compromise. He was courageous in forging out on his own, finding like-minded individuals to work with.