“Shock Head Soul,” Brit experimental director Simon Pummell’s study of mental illness and its treatment at the turn of the 20th century, has all the weirdness, cerebral depth and envelope-pushing style that David Cronenberg’s otherwise estimable Jung-Freud faceoff, “A Dangerous Method,” lacks. Blending docu elements with fictional reconstruction and trippy CGI, the pic explores the fascinating case of schizophrenic Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge whose autobiographical account of his own madness, published in 1903, shaped the then-young discipline of psychotherapy. “Soul” reps a truly sui generis work, both moving and intellectually stimulating, which deserves to be seen beyond fest asylums.
The reconstructed material unspools how judge Schreber (Dutch thesp Hugo Kooschijn, excellent) developed acute symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia in middle age, much to the distress of his younger wife, Sabine (Anniek Pheifer). It might have been the stress of being appointed to the high court that precipitated his mental decline, but it sure didn’t help that he was effectively tortured as a child by his father (Michael Mellinger), whose idea of child rearing involved forcibly tying kids to chairs to encourage good posture. Flashbacks illustrating Schreber’s childhood seen here are actually excerpts from “Temptation of Sainthood,” an earlier short film by helmer Pummell.
Schreber’s delusions included believing that he was turning into a woman, and that codes and patterns devised by God were controlling him and all those around him. Occasionally, handwritten excerpts from his autobiography, “Memoirs of My Nervous Illness,” sometimes scored over with emendations in red ink, appear onscreen to offer the flavor of Schreber’s intense prose style. More frequently, he is seen composing the memoir with the assistance of a bizarre CGI object called the Writing Down Machine, a free-floating, brass orb covered in pulsating typewriter keys that glows and sometimes sprouts long spectral tentacles like some kind of steampunk jellyfish.
Interviews with practicing psychiatrists, neuropsychiatrists and scholars, all dressed in fin-de-siecle duds, are intercut with the drama to provide insight into the impact of Schreber’s book, schizophrenia itself and the evolution of mental health-care at the time. Auds don’t necessarily need degrees in psychology or the history of medicine to understand what they’re talking about but, refreshingly, the level of discourse isn’t dumbed down for general consumption. Throughout, the pic is as engaged with ideas and history as it is interested in carving drama out of Schreber’s story through perfs, dialogue and extraordinary imagery.
Lensing by Reinier van Brummelen, working on HD, is exquisite and coupled deftly with visual effects and post-production and in-camera tricks to create consistently unsettling images, sometimes as simple as time-lapse shots of light traveling across an empty room full of scary-looking 19th-century exercise equipment as the sun sets. A rich score by Roger Goula enhances the atmosphere throughout without upstaging or overemphasizing the emotional register.