Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
by Ben Beard
Sedating the Soul
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Daniel Schreber is a very disturbed man. Set in turn of the century Germany, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness chronicles Schreber’s bout with mental illness and his subsequent recovery, such as it is. Channeling William Burroughs, John Franklin Bardhem, Edgar Allen Poe, and Guy de Maupassant, this tale follows a lonely married judge suffers from visions, flashbacks, and premonitions of the end of the world. His ailment first manifests as a odd impulse to participate in the sexual act as a woman. Soon a bout of melancholy, then delusions, then slow movements bordering on paralysis. As his condition worsens, he is entered into an insane asylum, under the watchful eyes of Dr. Flechsig.
This abstract and ambitious movie follows Schreber as he slides into a state of demented mania, and Dr. Flechsig as he tries to fix him. Of course, the medical practices of the day being what they were, Flechsig’s cures are in more cases than not worse than the disease: overmedication and partial asphyxiation (in the form of lukewarm baths), among others. The disturbing imagery of the sadomasochistic machinery of the Victorian era reverberates with fetishized sexual tension. Schreber’s descent is marked first by episodes of glossalia gibberish, where he screams and yells the inexpressible truths he has learned. He sees meaning in every thing, a crack in the floor, a wisp of shadow on the wall. But, slowly, his perturbations take on an increasingly gendered nature. For the second half of the film, Schreber has made himself over as a woman.
The stage is set for a battle of wills between Flechsig and Schreber, but eschews conventional narrative for something else. For Schreber suffers—like the great Philip K. Dick—from a too-close encounter with the divine. In this case he imagines a new language based on nerves, light, and sexuality. Thus the conflict, and the movie’s mesmerizing focus on the infinite pathways of the human brain, remains off-kilter, stubbornly refusing to follow conventions. Human antagonists mean little when compared to the obliterating power of sunlight, to the devastating evisceration that follows closeness with God. It’s a question that has tortured artists and prophets for years: how do we express the inexpressible?
The film’s tone, balancing horror with puzzlement and awe, works well when it shoves man’s internal abysses into the viewers’ faces. It falters, only slightly, when entering the psychosexual domain. There is a danger in having too many ideas, after all. The film is strongest when grappling with the unmitigated terror of the mysteries of the alien god; when it wanders into the confused sexual identities it seems to slip. As Schreber’s perverse, invidious intention to dress, act, and live as a woman confounds Flechsig, his wife and others in his life grow afraid of the rouged visage bereft of his mustache. With his homemade garments spun from his straight-jacket, the film teeters on the border of camp. Schreber, for a brief moment, reminds us of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But filmed with all the unnerving perfection of a Whistler painting, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness relies on its bizarre coda of words and images—akin to Schreber’s nerve language—to ruminate on insanity, society, sexuality, and even morality. With its tone and visual style, it’s reminiscent, strange as it sounds, of both The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Wisconsin Death Trip. There’s a haunting lyricism pushing at the borders of the movie’s frames. And while the relevance of the movie at times might be hard to grasp, there’s no denying the skill and ambition in the work. And if its uneven at times, and even challenging at others, there’s a bravura hand guiding the process here.
The film’s biggest problem relies on its fractured narrative, relying on images and moments over story. But as its less a narrative than an exploration of madness and the men who combat it, this discomforting little movie with its delicate touch reveals a terrifying vision of schizophrenic dislocation.
But is Schreber really insane? Or simply persecuted for his nascent homosexuality? (The lead, played by Jefferson Mays, delivers a brave performance, looking remarkably like Lara Flynn Boyle.) Has he been touched by God? Or cursed by the Devil? Is he a coward, a hero, a saint? The tendency with a film like this is to view the characters as symbols. But this would be a mistake. The answer isn’t clear, nor should it be. Flechsig and Schreber don’t conform to expectations.
Of course, who you sympathize with relies on your own disposition coming into the film. The authority or the outcast? The doctor or the patient? The law or the individual? By the movie’s end, it’s clear that Schreber is merely eccentric at his worst. A poor, confused soul born in the wrong century. How society will deal with him isn’t clear. But sanity, as always, wins out. The alternative is too scary to entertain.
For me, I always wish, despite the horrifying consequences for the world, that the insane and the mad are correct and we, the normal, boring, and mundane, that we are the ones in the throes of delusion. That out there somewhere, in the stars and nerve clusters of galaxies, something akin to God watches us, hoping we’ll someday recover the need for mystics and mages.
Ben Beard is a film critic and writer living in the Midwest.
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