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quietearth [Film Festival 08.12.12] scifi drama documentary biopic


One of the great joys of festivals is stumbling across a film that confounds your expectations or defies simple categorisation. I'm pleased to report Simon Pummell's docudrama Shock Head Soul is one such discovery at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. A complex and visually arresting work about one of the most famous cases of mental illness, Shock Head Soul never shies away from the intellectually challenging aspects of its subject but still manages to provide moments of powerful emotion.

Two short title cards opening the film neatly summarise the story's tragic scope. "In 1893, Daniel Paul Schreber was appointed as the youngest presiding judge in Germany. Nearly 10 years later he would find himself in the same court pleading for his freedom as a psychiatric patient." In the intervening years, Schreber had developed paranoid schizophrenia - a condition he maintained was actually God communicating with him - and had spent several years institutionalized. In an attempt to establish his sanity to the court, as well as to try to explain his experiences to his wife Sabine, Schreber had written a book, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, which has since become one of the most influential texts about mental illness.

Shock Head Soul follows Schreber's journey in dramatized sequences, interspersed with documentary interviews with modern day experts (psychiatrists, psychoanalysts etc) who relate Schreber's story and speculate on the nature and causes of his illness. These experts are dressed in period costume and sit in the same courtroom in which we have seen Schreber make his plea. It's an unusual but effective technique, creating a sense that in both Pummell's making of the film and our watching of it we are still judging Schreber (and people like him), just as his peers did in the 19th Century. It also helps keep a smooth cohesion as we move between the dramatizations and interviews, a distinction that becomes completely blurred when the characters (first Sabine and then the judges hearing Schreber's plea for freedom) start directly addressing the real-life experts, asking their opinions about Schreber's plight.

If this already sounds complex, Pummell then dares to take us down a veritable rabbit warren in his narrative structuring of Schreber's journey - opening in the court case, then cutting forward in time to Schreber typing up his notes into the book he would eventually publish, and from here flashing back to the onset of his illness and then his treatment, as well as occasionally flashing even further back to speculations about Schreber's childhood, where his father - a leading child physician with extreme views about the importance of complete obedience in children - subjects Schreber to all manner of physical and psychological abuse. It's a testament to the skill of the filmmaking that these structural gymnastics are never confusing, but instead add layer upon layer of nuance to Schreber's experiences while also giving us new understandings and sympathies for the characters.

The film is equally ambitious and stunning in its look. As one expert says, we can only attempt to diagnose Schreber by entering his world, and for most of its duration Shock Head Soul locks us into Schreber's world with him. A very narrow depth of field makes Schreber's surroundings feel unclear and fragile. Characters are often composited into scenes, allowing effects such as Schreber sitting normally in the middle of a courtroom which is dizzyingly distorted around him by a fish-eye lens. In other sequences, Schreber is doubled and tripled in frame to maddening effect.

Performances are also great. All the interviewee subjects are engaging but it's Hugo Kooschijn & Anniek Pheifer, playing Schreber and Sabine, who are the real stars. Kooschijn's craggy features are wonderfully affecting, by turns fierce and noble and sad, and he and Pheifer have a compelling chemistry that sells both the anger and frustration of a couple being ripped to breaking point by one partner's illness, as well as the abiding love that keeps them fighting to get through it together.

Simon Pummell has created a fascinating film that raises interesting possibilities about how a documentary story can be told. Intellectually, Shock Head Soul is important as an investigation of a man whose documenting of his own illness became an important part of science’s shift from viewing madness as something "other" to something that could and should be understood. Emotionally, it's a powerful portrait of a man's bravery as he tries to understand and overcome strange forces beyond his control that are tearing him apart, and to survive the sometimes torturous treatments society imposed in its attempts to cure him.

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