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.
Brandauer’s moderated, exceptional, understated yet dynamic performance reveals that Reich was not concerned about acceptance into the medical power structures that held sway in mainstream research medicine and mainstream psychiatry. The director/writer selected the events that reveal Reich detested playing politics and was his own man. Concerned with helping humanity and not puffing up his career institutionally, he believed that he had discovered a process that was more efficacious, beneficial and much less harmful than the current conventional medical practices being used. Outside of the hierarchy of conventional psychiatry, Reich assiduously continued with his research, enjoying wherever it led him which eventually was to Maine to found Orgonon (named after the town) where he built a laboratory, cottage and other buildings to study orgone energy. Today Orgonon comprises the Wilhelm Reich Museum, and cottages, one being the cottage Reich lived in with his family.
Predominately through episodes of flashback woven in with the present, the film focuses on the last years of Reich’s life in Maine, dissecting his arrest for contempt of court, the psychiatric evaluation, mainstream medical psychiatric practice in juxtaposition to Reich’s, the trial and the final outcomes.
The filmmaker devotes some attention to Reich’s orgone studies in Maine, his work with orgone boxes and their curative results on a farmer and his wife; these scenes are mingled with the scenes in the present. Other flashbacks include his reconciliation with his daughter Eva (Julia Jentsch) after years of estrangement, his relationship with his wife and partner, his loving relationship with his son.
We also see his relationship to his assistants, avid researchers and loyalists, except for the two who are spies for the government, one of whom was intimidated into providing information against Reich. These important episodes ground Reich in the reality that he is a man of observation and keen intelligence, a loving family man who is at peace with himself, that he is essentially trusting and is happy to engage others in his work. It is also made clear that because Reich is outside the mainstream of the medical establishment, he may be interpreted to be a danger and threat to it. Additionally, his observations about the effects of radiation testing and writings did not sit well with the Atomic Energy Commission during this time of McCarthyism and the Cold War’s overriding question: who would gain a supremacy of nuclear weapons, the US or the Soviet Union?
In an important segment of the film, the director has chosen to reveal the concurrent psychiatric practice employed by Dr. Cameron and others that Reich could have been involved in if he had elected to stay with the mainstream of “modern” psychiatry. These “therapies” included excessive electro shock treatment, drugs, lobotomies and other interventions, with no proven benefit to the patients and in some instances without their voluntary consent.
In a few scenes with one schizophrenic patient, we are brought to understand the calculating, Mengale-like, self-deification of Dr. Cameron. The power of his role gives Cameron the license to use experimental drugs, excessive electro shock and lobotomy to eradicate his subject’s memory and override his free will in the name of “finding a cure.” These scenes are terrifying. His therapies produce no admitted benefits and indeed they result in the patient’s suicide. However, as the President of the American, Canadian and World Psychiatric Associations, Dr. Cameron is considered a world class physician and researcher.
The scenes with Cameron (wonderful performance by Gary Lewis) and the schizophrenic-Thomas (Max Deacon) are dramatic. They portend the critical issues inherent in giving such power to individuals with no moral or ethical compunctions (in the film Cameron says morality and ethics don’t apply to the hippocratic oath). This is especially true when they, like Cameron, are not held accountable for their actions. Svoboda hones in on current themes: some power structures and people are “too big to fail.” Such happens when there is little regulation or accountability. If the doctors spurred on by drug companies used patients as guinea pigs, there was no one to stop them. Their legitimacy was upheld by group think and the fear of ostracism or worse.
Reich eschewed such practices referring to these psychiatrists as “idiots.” Meanwhile, his patients sat in his orgone boxes called accumulators. Anecdotal patient testimony was positive and patients reported being healed of various conditions (cancer among them) with no physical or mental harm or side effects. Without preaching or being didactic, just by revealing the incidents, the film raises important questions and by the end posits some answers. Why was Reich defamed in a press smear campaign in 1947 that made him appear crazy enough to warrant government investigation? Why was Dr. Cameron larded with honors and awarded prestige and presidencies though his horrific practices caused his patients untold harm even death? Why were government assets employed against Reich?
The film highlights the injustices that Reich suffered at the hands of government agents (CIA, FDA) and Dr. Cameron who controlled the medical power structure. Over the objections of the evaluating psychiatrist that Reich is not really fit to undergo a trial, Cameron overrides the report. We determine that he is motivated not by objective, clinical observation but by his own personal reasons. He makes sure that Reich goes to trial and loses, sealing Reich’s fate. With haughty arrogance, Dr. Cameron derides Reich to his face revealing that in the past he continually denied Reich’s applications to join various psychiatric associations. Reich is nonplussed; he understands who and what Cameron represents and he believes the man has no ultimate power over him. In this exchange, we further understand why Reich has been persecuted. He will not kowtow to such individuals.
In a shift back to the past, more of the mystery of Reich’s case is elucidated. The FDA and other agencies (CIA) used spies and subterfuge to characterize Reich’s orgone therapy as useless. In a particularly powerful scene, agents are questioning a Reich assistant who is a government spy.
The assistant tells agents what she has learned: that the orgone therapy will be ineffective if the patients are in the orgone boxes only for a brief period of time. The implication is that the government representatives have one purpose: close down Reich, regardless of the efficacy of his program, and perhaps because of it. It’s about power and who holds the reigns. It has little to do with beneficial results, healing efficacy or lack of harm to patients. The film makes this point clear: if the FDA was interested in testing any benefit from Reich’s orgone boxes, they would not have resorted to subterfuge or spying. The FDA would have sent out an official team of researchers and scientists. They didn’t; they created a spy network and adjusted their findings to their own needs.
Indeed, under scientific protocol there was no attempt to understand Eastern Medicine’s use of Chi (Reich’s claim for orgone energy) that had worked for thousands of years. Western medicine at the time didn’t “officially” accept anecdotal testimony or historical record that it couldn’t patent. So Reich’s ability to prove the benefits of orgone therapy using the empirical methods demanded by mainstream research and medicine was greatly limited. We see this at the trial; Reich’s attempts to discuss his research are fruitless. The DA who wants “hard proof.” The film intimates that mainstream medical research didn’t necessarily use perfect empirical research either. But by demanding “hard proof” the medical power structure could use that as a determination to judge and get rid of therapies, especially if researchers, like Reich, lacked resources and backing by prestigious associations.
These incidents and others indicate the government’s determination to deal with Reich by nullifying his work. The filmmaker suggests there are root explanations in the tensions of the Cold War. Whether Reich was a casualty of that war may be argued, but there is no mistaking the precarious justice that the FDA followed. Filmmakers show they went after Reich with a vengeance that is surprising in its malevolence. In a poignant scene beautifully rendered by Brandauer, agents force Reich to burn his life’s work, his orgone boxes and his tons of books. Brandauer is particularly brilliant in this scene holding the emotion in restraint as he sets the orgone boxes ablaze after he douses them with gasoline.
Forcing him to destroy his own work (often likened to digging one’s own grave and jumping in it before being shot) and burning his books has been labeled as the worst book banning in American History. Under the guise of protecting the American public from maniac Reich, it is a shaded throwback to book burnings under Nazi Germany fascism. The film’s final unspoken question remains, in the strange case of Wilhem Reich, from whom or what was the American public being protected?
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, the information scrolls out the following facts
Dr. Cameron participated in the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control Program. The illegal program was carried out without informed consent on many unsuspecting victims in Canada and the U.S. Those who signed up voluntarily didn’t know what they were getting into. Whether they knew or they didn’t, in a number of instances the victims were injured permanently and some died.
Reich died in prison less than a month before he was up for parole. Reich was dressed (without his shoes on) and ready for the morning call for breakfast when he was found on his bunk dead. According to the prison physician, he died of a heart attack during the night. There was no autopsy performed.