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Professional News
Film Depicts Parallel Lives of Freud, Hitler
Psychiatric News
Volume 45 Number 21 page 10-11

Although many psychiatrists are well versed in the life of Sigmund Freud, few are probably cognizant that Freud and another figure who shaped the 20th century—Adolf Hitler—were neighbors in Vienna, Austria, from 1906 to 1913.

Yet they were, Manfred Becker, a German-born film director now working in Canada, reported at the Canadian Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Toronto in September, where he showed his documentary, "Neighbors: Freud and Hitler in Vienna" to an overflow audience.

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Manfred Becker: "It was like walking into a minefield to produce this film—trying to put two men who changed history into that most superficial of art forms, television." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

Becker made the film for Canadian television in 2003. "That those men shared the same neighborhood for some time and dominated the 20th century was the focus of my film," he said.

The film examines the philosophies and eerily parallel existences of these two men. Freud, a Jew, gave people knowledge of the unconscious, hoping to free them from their irrational instincts. Hitler unleashed those irrational instincts, planning to liberate the Germans from their perceived enemy, the Jews. The film contains a lot of original film footage of both men, as well as interviews with key sources, such as Freud's granddaughter Sophie Freud, who now lives in Boston.

Here are descriptions of some of the film's interesting scenes.

After Becker showed this film to the Canadian psychiatrists, poignant comments and heated conversation about it followed.

"As you know, I am from that place where Hitler was from—Germany," Becker commented. "I was under the cloud of the Holocaust [as were all Germans in the years after World War II]. I thought I could escape that cloud in Canada. But then someone in the schoolyard called my son a Nazi. So in a sense this film was a form of self-psychotherapy for me."

Said one psychiatrist: "Both Freud and Hitler had the experience of losing a parent, being traumatized by it, et cetera. I don't think that Hitler's childhood has ever been examined sympathetically." To which Becker replied: "How do you sympathize with evil? For Germans it is very hard to go there."

In the minds of others in the audience, the film raised questions that will probably never be answered. For instance, did Freud and Hitler ever encounter each other when they lived in the same neighborhood? Could they have ever greeted each other in a cordial manner? And if they had, might it have ameliorated Hitler's view of Jews? And suppose Hitler had been accepted into Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. Would it have made him feel that he had been accepted into the cultural world of Jews and have deterred him from becoming disenchanted with Germany's condition and blaming that condition on Jews?

"The question of a possible and then fateful encounter between the two men is a big one," Becker told Psychiatric News. "Of course I thought about that possibility."

Becker has directed and written eight documentaries for television. His subjects have ranged from the life of a stage actor with schizophrenia to what it means to be a German living under the cloud of the Holocaust. He also teaches film at York University in Toronto. blacksquare

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Manfred Becker: "It was like walking into a minefield to produce this film—trying to put two men who changed history into that most superficial of art forms, television." 

Credit: Joan Arehart-Treichel

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