Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008

Diary of a Madwoman

By David Luhrssen
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Hungary, 1913: Dr. Josef Brenner is a famous novelist whose day job in psychiatry has drained his creativity, leaving him incapable of forming a story. But his patient, Gizella, can’t stop writing, covering sheets of paper and the walls of her cell with spidery script detailing her on and off demonic possession. She describes the Evil One entering her like “electricity endowed with some sort of mind.” Not bad for a woman of little education.

Their story is told in Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, a visually stark and disturbing film by Hungarian director Janoz Szasz. Brenner is himself a passable rendition of the Evil One—a clinically voracious sexual exploiter, cold and without apparent feeling, descending the spiral staircase of morphine addiction. Gizella becomes another life to suck dry.

The setting for Opium is never far from the foreground. Although the “institute” where Brenner works is staffed with hard-faced Roman Catholic nuns as attendants, the methods of the psychiatric staff are based not on scholastic theology but the best mechanistic science of the day. Treated as a broken clock whose springs may yet be put in working order, Gizella is subjected to electroshock and lobotomy, spun round and round in a whirling machine, hosed with cold spray and lowered repeatedly into a tank of water as white coated alienists look on. There was nothing unique about these practices, many of which continued into living memory across the world, including American mental hospitals.

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