Historical fiction isn’t the easiest of genres to dig into, especially when the epicentre of your universe is a figure as tall as Sigmund Freud. While it would have been no-less-fascinating to witness a true-to-life account of Freud’s early years in the form of a show, this Netflix series keeps many of his biographical details intact and reimagines the story of the genius long before he was hailed as a father of psychoanalysis. The result is a flashy mélange of politics, rejection, jealousy, psychology and royalty – a mix that sounds delicious from a screenwriting perspective but fails to be as compelling when it’s translated into a show.
Freud places the figure in the middle of a murder conspiracy that grips Austria. Set more like a detective thriller and less like a biographical account, it fictionalises a phase where Freud’s several theories and experiments about hypnosis were quashed by his superiors and faced consistent ridicule. It tries a lot to humanise Freud but consistently keeps flashing back to the vignettes of his undiscovered genius – which the audience isn’t given a fair chance to witness. It doesn’t help the viewing experience because the series offers a peek into his failures more than his laurels.
His stay in an apartment in Vienna that was constructed in the very site where a fire accident in a cultural centre extinguished as many as 400 lives, is viewed as a curse (by his housekeeper Lenore). It’s only in the initial episodes that you notice an attempt from the filmmakers to capture the humanly side to Freud. The young doctor even asks Lenore to stage an act in front of a 30-member crowd for a presentation on his idea of hypnosis. Soon, Freud becomes a Sherlock Holmes-like universe when he lands up in an investigation about a woman who’s mysteriously murdered. A former soldier Alfred Kiss soon becomes one of his aides as he digs deep into the truth beneath a political conspiracy.
The tale since then constantly drifts between its thriller and psychological undertones – not doing justice to either of them. Then there are extremely fascinating and mysterious characters like Victor von Szapary, Sophia von Szapary and Fleur Salome whose flattering visual aura, ambiguous identities keep haunting you. The show is excellent in establishing their characters, the inherent creepiness and how they use vulnerable targets, hypnotise them to fulfil their aims. Freud also taps into an interesting discussion about the repression of femininity and offers a glimpse of the homosexual tension between the soldiers in the Austrian army too. These subplots, sadly, remain squandered opportunities.
The half-baked subplot about Hungary being freed from the Austro-Hungarian union through hypnosis is perplexing, to say the least. The cocktail of factual references and fictional twists certainly seems overindulgent. If the series is successful at something, it is its ability to maintain the eeriness in a complex setting. The mumbo jumbo about the subconscious gets to your nerves beyond a point, but the visual flair gives an edge to the show.
The imaginative cinematography that tries to give a visual meaning to psychiatry and visualises the inner demons of its many characters with definitive clarity wins your attention. The captivating styling of the characters (that contribute to their identity), the stunning architecture in the backdrop offer a good excuse to stare at the frames, even if the story doesn’t strike a chord. The use of music isn’t exactly conventional; the way the filmmakers use melody as a tool to create a spooky atmosphere is captivating.
Robert Finster as the title character doesn’t only resemble Freud in his younger days but also places good emphasis on understanding the innate curiosity that helped him rise above his critics. Anja Kling is, however, the actor who impresses the most – the smart slow-paced dialogue delivery, her body language are an asset to a performance that remarkably presents the feistiness and the identity of the role and its conflicted background. Ella Rumpf, George Friedrich, Brigitte Kren (as Fleur, Kiss, Lenore) are others among the lead cast who get superb character arcs and leave a striking impact on the viewer.
The editing terrifically preserves the visual texture of the storytelling – however one wonders if a linear narrative would have helped Freud. The attention to detail, from its directors Marvin Kren, Stefan Brunner and Benjamin Hessler besides its writers, is impressive. However, as a show that lasts nearly 7 hours, it lacks seamlessness and is too muddled to stay in the minds of its viewers. Forget about Freud and treat this like any other historical drama set in the 1800s, there are chances you may like it. If you're curious about Freud the man, this may not be worthy of your time.