The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich

Film Reviews

A review of the movie by Dr. Benajir Wolf.

Der Fall Wilhelm ReichI saw the new Wilhelm Reich movie and was quite frankly disappointed!

Since the community of body psychotherapists in Germany announced this movie as the new big thing I was really curious and actually went to the movie theater (something I haven’t done in years for the pure lack of time, and interest, I must admit). I even took my teenage daughter, hoping to inspire some rebellion and courage to live her ES (ID) as Freud called it. But already half way into the movie we were both slouching in our seats, thinking that we should have visited the Italian restaurant next door instead!

The movie deals with the last few years of Reich, painting the image of a victim who had to suffer from the social and moral tightness of the McCarthy era (not that the false-moral-attitude ended there, seen in US historical perspective). Yes, he was prosecuted unfairly, yes it was ridiculous that his orgone machine – officially tested and deemed useless – had to be destroyed; nevertheless, yes, he died in prison. Poisoned or just suffering from a heart attack… we’ll never know. The parallels to Osho are there, undoubtedly.

But what exactly made the movie so boring? Well, about 20 minutes into the movie we get the picture that we are supposed to get: Reich, the victim, sadly misunderstood. And after that we have to listen to more proof supporting the same fact. It’s a bit like having been condemned to jury duty and the prosecutor lists the evidence…for an entire week!

The sad thing (aside from the waste of money for the ticket) is especially what is not part of the movie:

• His youth and the first years of his adult life. How he – like Lowen, his later student – ran across Freud’s theories of sexuality and as a result left his law studies and changed to studying psychoanalysis.

• How he opened sex clinics in Germany, way ahead of his time, and why he saw the embodied unconscious unlike other analysts “bottom up”, with the body as a partner in psychotherapy rather than a vehicle.

• His courage and deep desire to use the right intervention and just touch, which led to his expulsion from the psychoanalytic society.

One of his patients was Alexander Lowen (founder of Bioenergetics), who died just a few years ago and had an evenly interesting life, fitting for a movie! Lowen reports about one of his sessions with Reich (he was in training with him): an amazing account of a breathing session which led to regression and a recollection of a childhood trauma. Lowen describes his cathartic scream, Reich telling him to stop screaming after several minutes, because the neighbors were getting alarmed. Now, that would have been a fascinating movie scene, which would have given some insight into the miracle of body work (the core issue, which the movie sadly lacks).

Lowen also recollects an important but left-out detail within the movie: Reich’s confronting and unyielding attitude. Not fueled by the conviction of a scientist but by someone who wanted (narcissistic) recognition so much that he was looking for fights that could be won, thus unable to make diplomatic decisions that would have served him and his science more.

A look into Reich’s earlier years and his therapeutic practices would also have explained why Reich went the “touch the body” path and Freud didn’t, adjusting the false image of Freud that many still carry: the body-ambivalent big-brain professor. They simply had entirely different clientele, which caused their different interventions – and both choices were correct! Reich treating more severe disorders in low income clinics (borderline, etc.), Freud treating well-situated young hysterics, with an intense transference dynamic towards him.

Well, I could go on about all the interesting things that were missed, including the interesting relationships between all the big names in body psychotherapy, but maybe that’s a different movie altogether…

If we trust Lowen’s analysis of Reich, then Reich would have probably loved the movie, since there is little room for others or body work: it’s all about him.

Dr. Benajir Wolf, University of Marburg

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