When Sartre Met Freud

The Freud Scenario by Jean-Paul Sartre. ed. J. B. Pontalis; tr. Quintin Hoare. March 2013. Verso. ($26.95). 549 pages.


Version I (1959):

FIRST PORTER, apologetically        We though something was on  fire.

FREUD           Nothing’s on fire.


FREUD, curt and ironical      Really.

He moves to close the door again. The porters gesture imploringly                                       towards the patient.

            Aha! it’s the hysterical patient. What’s up?

FIRST PORTER        Nobody wants her.

FREUD           I can’t imagine not.


He throws his cigar-butt and moves towards the hysterical patient: she                               stares in fascination.

             OLD WOMAN          I’m blind.

                       He approaches her and peers into her eyes.

FREUD, gently No, Madam, you don’t see but you’re not blind.

(Sartre 7)


For the die-hard, Sartre’s portrayal of Freud is as appropriately placed as No Exit translated into English and being performed on Broadway. Here you have herr doktor, a neurologist who revolutionized the study of the unconscious that defined modernism and his, in this screenplay, story is written by a French existentialist whose philosophy also unleashed the subconscious in a way that would make Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’ coil in fright. Essentially, this is the modern scientific repressed ego, portrayed by the postmodern existential-angst-ridden ego. Both are disillusioned and tortured by fear of the unknown. This is the torment that plagues Sartre’s Freud.

In 1986, John Sturrock, an editor for London’s Times Literary Supplement wrote an article in The New York Times’ Book Review about The Freud Scenario by Jean-Paul Sartre released in English at the time on University of Chicago Press. For the Sunday book review Sturrock wrote:

 Jean-Paul Sartre liked going to the movies because it was an unstuffy, proletarian thing to do, but when it came to writing for the movies he showed himself as intellectually lordly as ever and produced a scenario that was quite brilliantly unmakable.

“Unmakable” because perhaps Sartre was too much of a leftist, a philosopher and a Frenchman to successfully pen the biopic of Dr. Sigmund Freud on commission, even as some kind of an “intellectual adventure” story or mystery (something like a Sherlock Holmes of psychoanalysis, but with a cigar.) In a 1986 article in The New Left Review, one reviewer remarked: “The McCarthyite columnist Frank Conniff…described Huston as ‘the brains of the Communist Party in the West’…”

The film focuses on Freud’s life from 1885 until 1890. “Asked in 1958 to do a script about Freud by the director John Huston, Sartre wrote a synopsis of some 95 typed pages; this Mr. Huston accepted, and Sartre went to work (or to town) on a shooting script.” writes John Sturrock. “Like the synopsis, it was on the long side; had it been shot it would have worked out at some seven hours of screen time, and seven unusually exhausting hours for simple moviegoers, untrained for the fiercely cerebral and ambiguous story Sartre had to tell.” he wrote.

It was held even then that Jean-Paul Sartre who had written the dark novella that defined the post-war era, Nausea and the lengthy philosophical essay called On Being and Nothingness had too much philosophical weight to write a screenplay that would be bouncy and flighty enough to grace a Hollywood sound-stage and sell out movie theaters.


While the lengthy manuscript of spec and plot synopses has long been out of print, it is now available in book stores around The United States and England in a handsome new paperback edition from Verso books. It was released in March. The edition is complete with a lengthy essay by editor, Pontalis; a Version I of the screenplay, a Version II, a table comparing the two versions and other fun literature for enthusiasts and researchers who need look no further for illumination on this fascinating and intellectually appetizing project.

Until the March 2013 rerelease of this work, it was previously available as a hardcover edition for a whopping $95 on W.W. Norton & Co.

Originally commissioned in 1958, and found posthumously among the French philosopher’s unpublished manuscripts (presumably by his son), these pages have been available to the public in an erstwhile format in French as Le Scenario Freud by Editions Gallimard 1984, and in English from Verso in 1985.

In a November 1985 article for The London Review of Books called “Decent Insanity” Michael Ignatieff wrote:

 Like Huston, he [Sartre] began to see Freud’s discovery of the    unconscious as a highly cinematic descent into hell. They even agreed on the incredible proposition that the imaginary young patient – Cecily – should be played by Marilyn Monroe. Sartre apparently thought she was the greatest actress in the world. Not least, they agreed on the money: $25,000 was to be Sartre’s fee…[…].


Indeed, the Hollywood of the 1950s seemed a little too fixated on American popular culture for the likes of a biopic on the father of psychoanalysis’ period of genesis for this particular school of psychological study and exodus from the practice of therapeutic hypnosis, that is.

A conservative government, a reaction to the Soviet Union perhaps, empowered a leftist Hollywood in a formidable way.

(Note: this scene of the film that shows Freud’s nightmare, his “obscure sexual craving” for his mother that haunted his psyche once he had unlocked it. Only Sartre could portray Freud’s inner vision as morbid and horrifically as this…)



When Sartre accepted John Huston’s commission he was financially strapped, so the timing for the author was right on, however while the casting had been imagined and several versions of the screenplay drafted, it was never thought that the idea would actually come into fruition. But sure enough in 1961 on an impressive budget the “screenplay [which] had to be reduced and substantially transformed by Charles Kauffman and Wolfgang Reinhardt, film professionals close to Huston, whereupon Sartre insisted that his name should not appear among the credits. The film was made in 1961 and released the following year with the title of Freud, soon altered to the more alluring Freud, The Secret Passion (in French Freud, Desirs inavoues: Freud, Unconfessed Desires).” writes Pontalis in the editor’s Preface. “It met with scant success…” he wrote. He goes on to explain that the role of Freud was played by one Montgomery Clift. The film may be watched for free via streaming video on YouTube in both its English and French adaptations.

There is scarce surviving record to explain what actually went on between Mr. Sartre and Mr. Huston. In October 1959, explains Mr. Pontalis, Sartre spent a few weeks at Huston’s country house in Ireland with the sole purpose of working on the screenplay.

Another issue that is raised in the editing of such a work is what copy of the original manuscripts should be published and released to the public? There is what readers will find available as “Version I” and which is the screenplay that was handed over to Huston in 1959. Then, there is a rewritten version “defective” and “incomplete” which is listed in the rerelease as “Version II”. In the newly released edition of the manuscript with synopses and editorial essays, Volume II begins at “part 8”, this is the only down point of the new edition.

For source texts, Sartre apparently consulted Ernest Jones’ biography of Freud, translated into French as well as Freud’s published letters to Dr. Wilheim Fliess, The Interpretation of Dreams and Studies on Hysteria, as was mentioned in the book review from 1985 by Mr. Ignatieff. Plus, Dr. Fliess plays a crucial role in Sartre’s plot.

Other than the nightmare scene, which reminds contemporary moviegoers of Kubrick’s Freudian dreamscape: Eyes Wide Shut, (based on the 1926 novella, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story) there is very little in this text that would be deemed “absurdist,” though Huston did direct the 1946 stage version, the Broadway debut of Sartre’s existential classic, No Exit. Sartre’s Freud is forced to react to and deal with instances of anti-Semitism, long before the Nazi regime drove he and his family away from Vienna, and what Sartre perceived to be Freud’s own personal complex, that herr doktor himself what have deemed an “Oedipus Complex”, named for the Sophoclean tragedy.


The Synopsis (1958)


Original Scenario by

Jean-Paul Sartre


First draft

Paris, 15 December 1958




Freud at sixty, surrounded by his disciples (the ‘Seven’). They are talking about    self-analysis. Freud advises against it (other than as complement to a normal      analysis). Jones reminds Freud that he began his own many years before (1897).    Freud: ‘Who’d have analyzed me? There was only one analyst in the world and that was me.’ Questioned by those present (Freud’s self—analysis gave rise to his discovery of the Oedipus complex)…

(Sartre 505)

American filmmaker, John Huston (1906-1987), father of Anjelica Huston, also directed such classics as Key Largo (1948), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Moulin Rouge (1952) and Moby Dick (1956). The Unforgiven (1958) and Freud: The secret passion, was released in 1962, it directly followed The Misfits. The film historian known as Stuart Kaminsky recognized Sartre’s use of typology in the script. He wrote that Huston presents Dr. Freud “as a kind of savior and messiah” and he adds that Montgomery Clift’s portrayal is an “almost Biblical detachment”. The film was entered in the 13th International Berlin Film Festival.

While Sartre’s Freud opens with the portrayal of an historical-cum-scientific monarch, it is also “the story of [Dr.] Freud’s descent into a region as black as hell, man’s unconscious, and how he let in the light…” Perhaps the “light” portrays the story of Genesis, and the Lord, well you know who…(the famous agnostic-cum-atheist, himself.)

But slice things however you may, this new edition of Sartre’s The Freud Scenario, in English, as to match the 1962 film, Freud: The secret passion, is a perfect addition for your home library.

Another bonus is the character Dr. Josef Breuer – played by Larry Parks – Freud’s one-time mentor who is observed in the screenplay, observing patients in private, as well as a scene that portrays Dr. Breuer directly training young Sigmund while visiting patients.  This tenderness begs to compare, and is in some ways at odds with the version portrayed of him in the novel and classic film adaptation (by Pinchas Cherry) based on When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsessions by Irvin D. Yalom.


About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.