Sunday, January 12, 2014

NYJFF ’14: The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich was a Freudian psychoanalyst who claimed to have discovered a naturally occurring chi-like energy called Orgone that could cure sterility and cancer if patients spent enough time in his accumulator boxes.  If he sounds like crackpot to you, you’re not alone.  The Feds determined he was a dangerous fraud and prosecuted him accordingly. However, Antonin Svoboda takes a bizarrely hagiographic approach with his biographical drama, The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Reich could be very charismatic when he needed to.  When they met, he thoroughly charmed Einstein to such an extent he really thought the theoretical physicist would endorse his research.  That never happened.  In fact, his false Einstein hopes probably contributed to his troubles.  Reich has been indicted by U.S. Attorney Hills, the former counsel and business manager for Reich’s research institute, Orgonon.

It is not just Hills that is out to get Reich.  The FBI and the FDA are also on the case.  Even the Atomic Energy Commission gets an invitation to the party when Reich starts experimenting with radioactive isotopes.  Of course, their concerns seem rather defensible when Reich’s daughter suffers a mysterious bout of radiation sickness.

Essentially, Svoboda and co-writer Rebecca Blasband want viewers to come away thinking Reich was a persecuted Galileo.  Therefore, they are forced to be rather vague about the whole Orgone business.  For instance, Reich once argued the Northern Lights were a manifestation of Orgone, which is hogwash.  They also ignore his advocacy of free love, his UFO hunts, the paranoid delusions regarding his second wife, and the scandalous affair he had with one of his first patients, who died under rather murky circumstances.  Instead, they offer up Dr. Ewen Cameron (best known for his work with the CIA) as a Mad Doctor alternative, even though he and Reich are only tangentially related.

Despite the film’s obvious biases, Klaus Maria Brandauer still manages a fairly balanced portrayal of Reich, clearly depicting his single minded focus (bordering on mania) and his maddening irresponsibility. He leaves no doubt Reich partly contributed to his own travails. Unfortunately, Julia Jentsch and Jeanette Hain are just unremarkably nondescript as daughter Eva and second wife Ilsa Reich, respectively.  At least Birgit Minichmayr has some presence as Aurora Karrer, a reluctant government informer and “close colleague” of Reich.  It is also nice to see David “Sledgehammer” Rasche adding some flair as the supposed turncoat Hills.

At times, Svoboda makes Orgonon look like Walden Pond, but he leaves conspicuously unanswered questions lying all over the place.  After all, he can never assert with any authority just why Reich was right and the government was wrong, which does not leave much room for the film to stand on.  Brandauer does some nice work, but there is not much around him. Considering the strength of the line-up at this year’s NYJFF, The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich should not be a high priority for anyone when it screens Thursday afternoon (1/16) and Saturday evening (1/18) at the Walter Reade.