Freud review – Netflix revisionist drama is a ridiculous coked-up mess

The legendary psychologist is recast as a coke-fiend witch hunter who uses hypnosis to solve crimes in 19th-century Vienna, because ... why not?

Let’s be clear: these are weird and scary times. It’s strange, amid all the ominous health concerns and precarity, to care about television. But it is, as untold millions retreat to their homes for at least the next couple weeks, a uniquely boon time for streaming content. So it is that today, in a week of unprecedented excuses to binge soapy genre TV, Netflix dropped Freud, the streamer’s ridiculous “historical” fiction thriller which recasts the legendary psychologist as a coked-up, seance-enthused witch hunter who uses hypnosis to solve crimes in 19th-century Vienna. Because …why not?

The eight-part show, created by Marvin Kren, Stefan Brunner and Benjamin Hessler, keeps things (somewhat) grounded for about half an episode – the doctor, played as a tightly wound and righteous young striver by Robert Finster, practices his dramatically lit hypnotism routine on his housekeeper, Lenore (Brigitte Kern). And it is a routine – debt-riddled and with hypnotism skills lagging far behind his complex theories of psychological repression, the good doctor has resorted to training Lenore to perform a trance for his colleagues at his academy to prove the “haughty fools” of the establishment wrong. An outsider for his theories of the unconscious and his status as a “Jewish charlatan”, Freud is anxious to prove his worth, most especially to his long-distance fiancee, Marta, whose mother disapproves of his “medical” practice (as conveyed via clunky voiceover while Freud pens love letters). He also has less professional priorities, as evidenced by the line, and I quote, “Perhaps you would like some cocaine?” before the intro rolls.

Things swiftly take a turn for the weird, when a mutilated prostitute lands, literally, on Freud’s desk, courtesy of Inspectors Kiss (Georg Friedrich) and Poschacher (Christoph F Krutzler). Kiss, a gravelly voiced, archetypically repressed man, immediately suspects Georg von Lichtenberg, his former military superior, in part because he knew the woman, and in part because Kiss is intimately aware of his sadistic streak; the inspector’s lingering trauma, in the form of a cramped shooting hand, from the heinous orders he obeyed under Von Lichtenberg’s command offer Freud a chance to demonstrate that his idea of the embodied, active unconscious has some merit.

Freud slips from weird into downright ludicrousness when the doctor attends a seance hosted by Count Viktor (Philipp Hochmair), styled as Green Day crossed with Viennese nobility, and his mysterious wife, Countess Sophia (Anja Kling). Their ward, Fleur Salome (Ella Rumpf), a Hungarian medium who looks uncannily like Eva Green, suffers a bad trip into the alternate realm, one haunted by a blood-stained demon; particularly susceptible to Freud’s amateur hypnotism and charms, she becomes his key patient in the quest to explain the unconscious … and partner in a steamy affair.

The plot takes about two episodes to cohere into any sense, by which point it’s clear the mastermind of several violent, madness-induced crimes is Countess Sophia, whose hypnotic powers dwarf Freud’s and rely on a psychosexual combination of touch and verbal manipulation. As Countess Sophia’s plans swell from a young girl’s kidnapping to a confusing plot sowing chaos in the Austrian state, the show sinks deeper and deeper into engaging-enough lunacy. How much you enjoy this depends on how much you enjoy pulpy, gratuitous Netflix shows which make no claims to prestige TV or the concept of restraint. Among the things Freud throws at the wall: blood-soaked nude figures, a torture chamber deep in the canal tunnels, hypnotism-induced seizures, disastrous duels, Egyptian mummies as props, a cannibalistic opera singer, use of the shaky cam, dinner parties frozen in mid-air, and, naturally, Freud vomiting a particularly large dose of his cocaine beverage.

There are plenty of subplots here, most notably a political insurrection against the emperor whose logic is difficult to follow and ultimately irrelevant; the main show is the slurp of creepy, disturbing manifestations of repressed psyches coalescing into, by the later episodes, a nonsensical yet amusing horror show.

Like other absurd revisions of famous stories, such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Freud is arguably better the more it leans into its ridiculousness. There is little entertainment value in watching Freud stumble his way to a theory of hypnosis or deal with his own repressed demons and feelings of worthlessness; it is, however, baseline compelling, in a mindless, “I’m stuck inside and would like to plunge my brain into inane nonsense” type of way, to watch Freud and Fleur piece together Countess Sophia’s plan through a series of unsettling trips into hypnosis and horror.

All of which is to say: whatever suppressed pulp instinct you might have during this time of world crisis, it probably gets some airtime during this show. Which makes the concept of a review irrelevant – you either have an appetite for this kind of mindless stew of drunk history or you don’t. And given the upside-down surreality of the real world right now, a coked-up Freud might be a deceptively hot ticket.

  • Freud is now available on Netflix


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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