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Jung and Film

Jung and the alchemy of filmmaking: a new approach to film analysis?
By Marco Zigiotti

As we know, cinema and psychoanalysis were born together, in 1895, and, despite Freud’s lack of interest in the new art, cinema theoreticians and practitioners have always been inspired by the unconscious. Psychoanalysis has often been applied, one way or the other, to film criticism and with interesting results, especially by feminist writers. Analytic psychology, Jungian analysis of the psyche, has, instead, always been marginalized. It is not my intention to delve into the difference between psychoanalysis and analytic psychology, suffice it to say that the latter deals with original concepts rather alien to psychoanalysis. The main difference is the idea Freud and Jung had of the unconscious. Freud considered the unconscious to be mostly, though not exclusively, the repository of repressed instincts, or drives; Jung saw the unconscious divided into a personal one (equivalent to the Freudian one) and a collective one. The idea of a collective ‘mind’ is central to Jung’s psychology. This collective mind implies that there are a number of shared, unconscious structures, which he called ‘archetypes’. These make themselves known in the form of images in dreams and in the creative arts including filmmaking. The patterns of archetypes remain constant, but the images they adopt change according to external, personal and cultural forces, so that, with regard to cinema for example, a 1960s horror movie is only superficially different from a 1990s one. It is because of the archetypal make-up of our species that we can enjoy films in the same way we enjoy fairy tales: the figure of the king, princess, trickster, witch and so on, they all have a universal appeal. In our case the archetypes and the collective unconscious allow for a specific reading of films that does cast light where psychoanalysis doesn’t. In this article I will try to demonstrate that applying Jung’s psychology to film analysis and criticism opens up a new perspective on film studies and can be usefully employed in understanding both our psyche and filmmaking.

What do we compensate for when we go to the cinema? Cinema-going is an experience similar to the Jungian psychotherapy session, inasmuch as a film offers a special place where the psyche can come alive in a very special state. We all know that cinema is not just an individual experience which involves an individual response, it is a collective one too, and one we share with the rest of the audience. So, aside from the storytelling nature of films, the very experience of sitting in a theatre represents the rebirth of a collective, shared experience. There is a sense in which this mass-produced commodity is both eliciting a subjective and a collective response. Or, in Jungian terms, both the collective and the personal uncoscious play a part in making cinema such a popular entertainment because they tap into a deeply felt need for a compensatory activity of the mind. By compensatory we mean a kind of balancing mental activity. Our mind, by its very nature, naturally tends to regain balance. If we, in our daily life, concentrate consciously on one-sided activity, let’s say, watching socially committed documentaries, missing out on a more fictional, meditative and poetic vision of life, some sort of compensatory activity must take place. We may not be aware of this because it is usually unconscious.

Don Fredericksen, in his analysis of Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, 1935) explains how such a compensatory function can interpret a number of images in the film. Basil Wright made documentaries adhering to the tenets of 1930s English documentary school of Grierson, with its privilege of the ‘social’ over the ‘individual’, the ‘public’ over the ‘private’. Fredericksen suggests "that the profoundly symbolic character of Song of Ceylon is a compensation for the overwhelming semiotic perspective of Griersonian documentary film… Song of Ceylon re-establishes the reality of the mysterious, symbolic, and spiritual within the film form dedicated to demystifying and channeling some of the complex economic and technological forces informing social life."1 Compensation, in some films, points to the need to listen to that inner space which is at once uniquely individual and transpersonal. Without that ‘inner ear’, any analysis or semiotic investigations, lacks access to deep and essential truths. Compensation is an integral part of the enjoyment of watching film, but it is perhaps at its most obvious in films that adopt a ‘symbolic’ attitude. We can indeed talk of ‘symbolic films’ in an alternative way to ‘semiotic films’. But in order to understand this idea we need first to explain what symbol meant for Jung. For Jung, the symbol may be defined as the ‘best possible description or formulation of a relatively unknown fact’. Jung was quite adamant in differentiating signs (or the psychoanalytic symbol) from symbols (or the Jungian symbol). While the sign stands for something else, but known, the symbol has rather a character of both vagueness and richness. Jung said that what Freud considered symbols were not symbols at all but signs. The difference is not academic, symbols have roots into the collective unconscious and can never be ultimately understood, it makes for a reading of images less reductive than a psychoanalytic one. For example, a tower does not ‘represent’ necessarily a phallus, but, Jung would say, a growing higher, a touching the sky, or a getting connected to a spirit, etc. My position is not to dismiss the former in favour of the latter, but I think that while the psychoanalytic sign has an important role in relation to the creative mind, eg the director, the symbol has an important role in relation to the audience. In fact, I believe we can watch a film in various ways. One is with background information about the ‘birth’ of the film, including what the filmmakers themselves said about the movie; the other instead, is oblivious of the intentions of the makers and allows the viewer to ‘freely activatè a number of archetypes. So, while our different ‘personalities’ make for a personal view of the same film, the collective unconscious, allows a basic understanding derived from the shared archetypes.

There is something unsatisfactory, albeit sometimes useful, in watching a film, where we all assume that the directors speak of the unconscious and its role in their work, because: "are they merely attempting to rationalize the workings of repressed, infantile factors? If we believe this to be the case, logic will lead us to conclude that the films produced in such circumstances are themselves essentially cover-ups, and that the appropriate interpretative attitude is the psychoanalytic-semiotic one of causally reducing the manifest text to infantile, personal factors."2 Jung opposed this attitude, for him, artistic creativity was dependent on something more than just sublimations of infantile traumas. Jung says: "An exclusively causal and reductive procedure… breaks down at the point where the dream symbols can no longer be reduced to personal reminiscences or aspirations, that is, when the images of the collective unconscious begin to appear… [Their] meaning is reinforced and extended by all the conscious means at our disposal – by the so-called method of amplification."3 So, one aspect of the Jungian film analysis will naturally suit films whose content is ‘symbolically’ rich, but not only, as long as amplification can be applicable.

Symbols escape the attempt to enclose them within the wholly personal, and irrevocably link us to the transpersonal, or collective. For this reason the transpersonal level of amplification looks at symbolic imagery from another angle, using other sources. These sources are found in myths, fairy tales, folklore, religious writings and imagery, alchemical texts and archaeology. Fredericksen, in his analysis of Song of Ceylon, employs the method of amplification to make sense of the sudden appearance of birds. Birds, in part one of the film: ‘The Buddha, are not causally explicable but are abruptly edited in in a puzzling and moving fashion. If film is an emotional experience it is perhaps because the ego immersed in the experience of a film can be moved at a level below that of conscious attitudes. For Jung the creative process consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping the image into the finished work. "By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life."4 By researching the image of birds as it has been used over the centuries by various civilizations and cultures, that is by exploring similar images in different contexts, we may reach a plausible interpretation. Birds are seen as phallic symbols, or as gods; the sun is also represented as a giant bird; birds are a symbol for the transmigration of the soul, etc. It then becomes the case to explore what may seem relevant to our enquiry, eliminating part of the unsuitable symbolism. As we said, Jung’s idea of the unconscious was that of a creative source of our collective human potential, and far less the repository of repressed infantile and sexual material. This creative side has gradually been marginalised in modern times – especially since the Enlightenment – and the emphasis has been, until recently, almost exclusively on a mechanistic, scientific rationality, on logocentrism, on goal-oriented and hierarchical thinking. While all this has led to technological progress and the exploitation of Nature, it is a onesided development and is causing a loss of balance.

The consequence of a consciousness that excludes and devalues things like the spirit, the feminine, emotional knowledge, intuition, the non-material and the religious, is to make us strive, consciously or unconsciously, for them. For Jung, therefore, we seek compensation for that which is left out and which is so well provided by many fiction films. For Jung: "The cinema, like the detective story, enables us to experience without danger to ourselves all the excitements, passions, and fantasies which have to be repressed in a humanistic age."5 The cinema experience, hence, can be a very deep and emotional experience, but a very ‘safè one. No matter how engrossed we become in the film. In this sense there is an obvious similarity to dreams or, in the case of horror, nightmares. Spielberg has said of his movies how he wants to "take the technique and hide it so well that never once are you taken out of your chair and reminded of where you are."6 This makes the aim of movie-making analogous to the function of dreams under Freud’s original rationale where dreaming had the biological function of keeping sleep undisturbed. Movies keep us undisturbed by ‘outer reality’ so that finishing watching a movie is a bit like waking up from a dream. As Christopher Hauke observes: "So called ‘escapist’ movies do just that. They help us escape – but not simply escape from ‘reality’, but also escape to a different reality, one that tends to be ignored or devalued in our day-to-day lives."7

Projection, anima, animus and femme fatale

Another way in which we can approach film as a psychological experience is by considering the word ‘projection’. In its physical meaning it refers to the beam of light hitting the ‘dark’ screen with its moving images, but in psychological parlance projection refers to our getting rid of untolerable feelings by unloading them onto someone else, by making this ‘someonè the carrier of them. The cinema, then, becomes the place where we gather together to witness a story that allows for the projection of our shadow.8 The shadow, for Jung, is the sum of all the qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of man’s nature, the dark side of oneself. The ego is to the shadow what light is to the shade. As the shadow cannot be eradicated (and that should never be attempted), the best that we can do is to come to terms with it. The paradigm for the shadow is film noir, but really both literature and cinema are full of ‘shadowy’ characters, regardless of genre. One such shadow is women’s representation and roles in films. There is a plethora of books and essays on the female and the feminine in film. Feminist writers have hacked at psychoanalysis in an attempt to explain a rather stereotyped version of women in films. However, the femme fatale, often seen as the counterpart of the figure of the detective, has been approached mainly from a Freudian or post-freudian psychoanalytic perspective. Jung’s term for the archetypal feminine was the anima, which he theorised as the personification of the woman within a man and a vital link for the male to access the unconscious and the resources of the Self. Without the anima there is no path to individuation, no real growth. It is interesting that the anima seems to be seen as the shadow in the psyche of contemporary males, and this then becomes projected onto women themselves.

Women are made negative through men’s projection of that which they are unable to tolerate in themselves. As Hauke notes in Jung and the Postmodern: "Men need women to carry the deprecated image of femininity as a projection of what is split off and denied in men, with the result that women may be said to be carriers of an anima image that is contaminated by the masculine shadow."9 This rings true of many female characters on the screen. Although we could say the same for women scriptwriters and directors and their animus, the reality is that films are usually made by men. If we take a genre like the detective story we see that archetypal imagery gets close to the archetype, or, in other words, becomes polarized, similarly to the Western genre. But, as we have seen in Song of Ceylon, if the psyche has become overly one-sided, then a compensatory opposite is thrown up. In the case of the detective, the over-identification with the role he is playing (his persona10) leads to an encounter with the archetype of the shadow (as the criminal) and the contrasexual archetype (as femme fatale). But, as James Hillman observes: "The more a man identifies with his biological and social role as man (persona), the more will the anima dominate inwardly."11

Individuation in films

The term individuation was taken up by Jung via the philosopher Schopenauer but dates back to Gerard Dorn, a sixteenth century alchemist. Jung’s first published definition emphasized that (1) the goal of the process of individuation is the development of the whole personality, (2) it presupposes and includes collective relationships, i.e. it does not occur in a state of isolation, (3) individuation involves a degree of opposition to social norms which have no absolute validity. Through individuation the individual becomes an indivisible unity or whole. This ‘fulfilling our own potential’ has its dangers. The process of individuation may lead to a sense of omnipotence and even psychotic breakdowns if it is taken as an excuse to feel free to do anything we think we are entitled to. The intense involvement with the inner world may lead to a narcissistic preoccupation. Instead, individuation means that conflicting opposites must be reunited to produce a new synthesis in the personality. Does this happen in films? The limited scope of this article does not allow for an anlysis of specific films, but I would say that the answer to the question is: very rarely. Most screenplays use Vogler’s mythic structure as derived from Propp’s Morphology of the Folktales this format. However, I would argue that surviving the challenge of defeating the monster and freeing the princess jailed in the tower, or wiping out the evil opponent and returning with the elixir is not necessarily what we can call individuation. This is because the evil represented on the screen, and which is basically our shadow acted up by someone else on our behalf on the screen, is not integrated within us. It is antagonised and repelled. For example, in classical Western films good and evil are usually clearly defined and split into stereotyped characters. This, Jung, would say, is a good starting point, we need to differentiate good from evil to begin the process, but Indians, and their ‘primitivè and ‘evil habits’, are not recognised as part of our own nature. Western films in their classical structure are therefore an incomplete process of individuation, owing to the inability, and the lack of courage, to address the dark inner world as part of us. Good and bad are identified only to be repressed once again. It is my personal experience that watching a film is rarely an event that produces a higher state of mind. It is rather like embarking on journey whose destination is never reached.


The process of alchemy is exemplified in an interesting essay by Lydia Lennihan on the feature Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994). The film is about the lives of several small-time criminals living in contemporary Los Angeles. The film interweaves three tales, told in a circular, fractured manner, which only fully connect by the time the final credits roll. The first story focuses on Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two hit men on duty for ‘the big boss’, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). In the second, a down-and-out pugilist (Bruce Willis), who is ordered to take a fall, decides that there’s more money in doing the opposite. The final chapter follows a pair of lovers (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth) as they prepare to hold up a diner. The tales are about each character’s call for individuation. In addition there is the alchemical motif of gold woven throughout. Lennihan’s reading, suggested by the alchemical motifs in the imagery of the film, employs the metaphor of alchemy, focusing on the process of redemption through individuation, and on the union of psychic opposites, as ever, those of good and evil.

Jung discovered in mid-career that alchemical symbols were similar to archetypal dream images. Although alchemy is often dismissed as the attempt to transform base metal into gold, it is likely that the alchemists were rather pursuing a spiritual transformation, or a philosophical enquiry.12 Alchemy, for Jung, was a valuable tool for describing the process of individuation.

Alchemical language and illustrations gave him images with which he could symbolise his work. The opus, the alchemical process, starts with the prima materia, or raw material, or the imperfect individual, which, through several stages, becomes the ‘Philospher’s Stone’, or gold, the incorruptible substance.13 The first stage of the opus is the mortificatio, or nigredo stage, also known as the massa confusa, a confused blending of identity in the unconscious. The mortificatio period is associated with the colour black, death, putrefaction, defeat and disintegration. In terms of Jule’s individuation, the mortificatio, which means death and killing, is literally embodied by him, to the effect that he not only kills people who cross him or his boss, but is also surrounded by death, filth and dirty language, indeed, the very imagery of the nigredo phase. The prima materia, is black like the shadow, that portion of ourselves that is cast out as despicable, and Jules’s ‘blackness’ can be taken symbolically to represents the shadow of our culture and of the individual, our most murderous and violent urges.14 When Jules miraculously survives a shooting he recognizes this as an act of God – unlike his partner, Vincent, who dismisses the experience as an accident.15 Jung observed that the individual must recognise his/her own involvement in the process, or the potential for change remains unfulfilled. "When one consciously realizes one’s involvement, as Jules does, the unconscious elements which are being offered as jewels can be integrated and assimilated, and offer the individual deep and personal meaning in life which manifest in the outer world as new life."16 Alienation and inflation are, according to E. F. Edinger, who wrote at length about alchemy, prerequisites for individuation.These are present in Jules as he is a criminal, and therefore alienated from society, and feels justified to kill people, making him feel God-like. But part of us is similar to Jules and we need to be aware that the creative energy which is a result of the tension produced by the shadow’s interaction with the ego is missing if we negate the underworld and if the king/ego is given unlimited power. "The underworld characters which haunt our dreams … need to be seen for the spiritual strivings that they are: we need to know what they have come to tell us about ourselves. Without their essential darkness, we will become lost in the one-sidedness of the daylight world."17

The second stage, or albedo, is associated with the so-called unio mentalis, or insight. This totality of union cannot be achieved without first gaining total separation of the confused opposites, in our film the interpenetration of good and evil. Psychologically, the albedo represents the later stages of shadow integration. Perhaps it is in the second tale, that of Butch’s cheating and subsequent rescue of Marsellus, that we better see how the union of opposites generates different, higher, mental states. After surviving the ordeal of plunging into a world even more evil than their own, a new relationship is created between them. It is neither that of sworn enemies nor friends, but something else which their intimate union has produced. "Such strange conjunctions create a no-man’s land, a liminal territory where … [a] third option is produced. The situation then is no longer ‘black and white’, but many shades of gray, with peculiar nuances which demand our attention and response, not blind reactions from thoughtless habit and one-sidedness."18 In more mythological terms, the sky must lift from the earth, the yin must be seen as different from the yang, and so on.


As we have seen in this brief introduction, both the experience of going to a cinema and of watching films offer an extraordinary opportunity to rediscover Jungian psychology. Films, today, represent in a new form the everlasting world of storytelling, myth and folktales. Analytic psychology, with its emphasis on the idea that we share a common unconscious provides the ideal critical approach for popular films. We could even say that the success of certain films is to be found in their delving into the collective unconscious by resorting to archetypal imagery. Jungian psychology is heavily based on a world of images and imagery and films hold their power mostly because of their versatility in using (moving) images. Images to be seen not simply as ‘signs’ but as symbols, interpreted through a method of amplification, rather than semiotically. But films are also about narrative, processing, transformation. The success of a film like Pulp Fiction, for example, may give us a clue to how the idea that a collective shadow, symbolised by underworld criminals who have a spiritual awakening, suggests an unsuspected spiritual energy in the shadow.

Marco Zigiotti


1 Fredericksen, D., (2001), ‘Jung/Sign/Symbol/Film’, Jung & Film, London: Routledge, p. 51

2 Fredericksen, D., (2001), ‘Jung/Sign/Symbol/Film’, op. cit., p. 34

3 Jung, C. G., (1953/1966), CW7, para 122, quoted in Fredericksen, D., op. cit., p. 35

4 Jung, C. G., (1966), CW 15: paras. 129-130, ibid., p.50

5 Jung C. G, (1931), CW 10: para. 195, quoted in Hauke, C., ‘The films of Steven Spielberg’, in Jung & Film, op. cit., p. 151

6 Kroll, J., (1977), ‘Close encounter with Spielberg’ in Newsweek, 21 Nov, quoted in Hauke, C., ‘The films of Steven Spielberg’, in Jung & Film, op. cit., p. 152

7 Hauke, C., (2001), op. cit., p. 151

8 Which is often projected on the baddies in the film.

9 Hauke, C., (2000), Jung and the Postmodern: The Interpretation of Realities, London and Philadelphia: Routledge, p. 136

10 To go past the archetype of the persona (our everyday mask) and deeper into the psyche will give a better understanding of the world of the detective. Jung was keen to stress that the persona, while it is important, represents what is only an outer layer of the psyche. Underlying this are other archetypes and a sophisticated system through the psyche which attempts to balance itself.

11 Hillman, J., (1985), Anima: An Anatomy of a personified Notion, Woodstock: Spring Publication, p. 11, quoted in Hockley, L., op. cit.

12 The 16th century master alchemist Gerhard Dorn said: "Transform yourself into living Philosophical Stones."

13 Edinger, E., (1985), Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, p. 47, quoted in Lennihan, op. cit.

14 It can also be seen in analogy to black-exploitation films, and in a similar way to the representation of the woman as noted previously.

15 And Vincent will fail to reach individuation. As Lennihan says "Vincent’s fear, is really about his own egòs participation in what the unconscious is presenting to him."

16 Lennihan, L., op. cit., p. 64

17 ibid., p. 68

18 ibid. p. 66l


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