Fanatic or visionary Film tries case of Cold War scientist

If you admire truth in advertising, you have to applaud Austrian filmmaker Antonin Svoboda. “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” may sound like a tease of a title, but it couldn’t be more forthright.

The iconoclastic and misunderstood Jewish psychoanalyst and scientist whose experiments and radical theories made him a target for government persecution remains a fascinating enigma all the way to the haunting end of Svoboda’s beautifully photographed drama. Focusing on Reich’s final years in the U.S. in the 1950s, augmented with flashbacks to his early career in Europe that invoke Freud and Einstein, “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” is a puzzle of vivid incidents and unfathomable motives.

Was Reich a visionary ahead of his time, or a self-deluded monomaniac? A loving, caring individual, or an imposing monolith who let no one access his inner feelings?

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Wilhelm Reich with his cloudbuster invention

“The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” is unmistakably sympathetic to Reich and (among its goals) exposes the wrongs done to him by U.S. government entities during the McCarthy period. At the same time, like its subject, the film is both opaque and repetitive. Some aspects of Reich’s saga are made too clear, while others are left frustratingly ambiguous.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will present the first screening of “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” outside of Austria.

The stolid, likable Klaus Maria Brandauer portrays Reich as a smiling anvil, seemingly open and friendly but basically unmovable. The movie begins with Reich cheerfully conducting an experiment with his enthusiastic young son in the Arizona desert, a scene that tips us off to the scientist’s affinity for open spaces. (European locations stand in for the U.S.)

This joyful sequence is darkened by a threat to Reich’s freedom. We learn that the government has obtained an injunction against the shipment of his so-called orgone accumulators, in which patients are completely enclosed for health sessions.

Reich ignores the writ, which leads to his arrest. He elects to defend himself at trial, an act of naive self-confidence that can only have terrible consequences. It’s made clear that the menacing true believers in Washington, D.C., will pull out the stops when they identify someone as a Communist, subversive and/or enemy.

Meanwhile, writer-director Svoboda, who co-wrote and co-directed a 2009 documentary about Reich for Austrian television, provides evidence of the effectiveness of the analyst’s methods. A farmer and his wife, living near Reich’s Orgonon Research Institute in Maine, benefit first from his drought-ending cloudburst technology and then from his orgone box to conceive their first child.

Reich was sex-positive, to put it simplistically, and was convinced that repression led to physical ailments. Yet, in a curious choice for a European film, there is no sexual content. It’s also worth noting that while it’s not implausible that U.S. authorities in the uptight ’50s targeted Reich because they feared liberalizing attitudes about sex, the film doesn’t suggest it.

Unfortunately, while Reich helped others, he couldn’t or wouldn’t help himself. In addition to honoring his lifelong refusal to compromise, “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” aspires to posthumously confirm his genius, to the degree that his theories and research have proven influential in numerous arenas.

For a film that is about ideas as much as personality, it’s brilliant that its climax is a book-burning bonfire consuming Reich’s publications. The unsettling power of the scene derives from its effect on a character we’ve come to respect and admire, but also from its evocation of ruthless Nazi tyranny.

That the event took place in the United States in 1956 provides little comfort, especially for viewers attuned to current efforts by certain parties to suppress the facts on evolution and climate change.

Although his Jewishness is barely alluded to, “The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich” leaves us convinced that Reich deserves inclusion in the roll of Jewish casualties — nay, martyrs — of the Cold War.

“The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich,” 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 30 at the Castro in S.F., 8:35 p.m. Aug. 5 at the California in Berkeley, 8:45 p.m. Aug. 8 at the CinéArts in Palo Alto, 6 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In English. (Unrated, 111 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.