Memoirs Of My Nervous Illness

2006, Movie, NR, 80 mins


Odd but never dull, Julian P. Hobb's impressionistic adaptation of Daniel Paul Schreber's baroque 1903 account of his mental disorder rests largely on a riveting performance by Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays. The son of the noted 18th-century child-rearing expert Moritz Schreber (played by controversial artist Joe Coleman) who stressed posture, severe physical discipline and hygiene over all else, Daniel Paul Schreber (Mays), now a judge, suffers a serious psychotic break not long after beeing appointed Senatsprasident of Dresden's superior state court. Unable to sleep and convinced he's read his own newspaper obituary, Schreber travels with his wife, Sabine (Lara Milian), to the University of Leipzig's psychiatric clinic, where he's placed under the care of Dr. Emil Flechsig (Robert Cucuzza), a stern father figure around whom Schreber constructs a bizarre and exceedingly complex paranoid delusion. Schreber postulates the existence of a "nerve language," which God, Dr. Flechsig and others use to communicate with him telepathically, and fears that Flechsig might even be interfering with God's divine communications, or "rays," and committing "soul murder" — prolonging the existence of his own soul by stealing Schreber's. Initially fascinated, Dr. Flechsig prescribes tepid baths and opium, encouraging Schreber to record his fevered thoughts in a journal. But Schreber's outbursts and strange accusations soon lead the frustrated doctor to harsher measures: increased potassium bromide, brutal force feeding, straitjacketing and confinement in a dank, filthy cell. As Schreber continues to scribble and draw in his journal — a blasphemous, even pornographic work that shocks and disgusts Dr. Flechsig but which Schreber believes contains a new religious truth — he comes to believe that his spiritual contest with the good doctor is destroying the human race. Schreber's delusions take a still stranger turn when he feels he's becoming "unmanned" — turned into a woman — so he can be fertilized by God and repopulate the earth. Hobbs, who owes a strong stylistic debt to Carl Theodor Dryer, takes much of Schreber's fractured dialogue directly from his published work, a harrowing, sometimes poetic and endlessly fascinating read. While placing more emphasis on the effects of Dr. Flechsig's sadistic treatment, Hobbs' perspective echoes those already posed by Freud and, more recently, Morton Schatzman, who concluded that Schreber's madness was directly tied to the extreme disciplinary regime recommended by his mentally ill father. Hobbs, however, brings home the important idea that regardless of how outlandishly unreal his thoughts were, Schreber's suffering was real and he was able to translate it into an enduring work of art. Whether frozen in a state of divine ecstasy, screaming in strange tongues or writhing in "voluptuous excess," Hayes' remarkable portrayal calls forth the madman from the text and, eventually, the human being from the madman. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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