Bright Lights Film Journal

Dreamtime – Inception vs. Secrets of a Soul (G.W. Pabst 1926)

Nine out of ten bloggers agree – the dreams in Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION are not particularly dream-like, at least, not much more so than the action sequences in your average James Bond film. Whether that makes INCEPTION a bad movie is another issue. Nolan essentially uses the dream invasion scenario as a MacGuffin – an excuse to intercut several different sequences featuring the same characters in which what happens to the characters in one sequence is paralleled by, or directly affects, what is going on in the other sequences. The effect is not unlike what D.W. Griffith accomplished in INTOLERANCE (1919) when he intercut four parallel stories occuring in four different time periods (Babylon – 539 B.C., the crucifixion of Christ – 27 A.D., the St. Bartholowmew’s Day Massacre – 1572 A.D., and Modern America circa 1914) so as to have each story reach its crescendo “simultaneously.” And like the intercut stories in INTOLERANCE, some of the parallel sequences in INCEPTION, e.g., the ski troop attack, are notably weaker than the others. 

Bottom Line:  As a big budget Christopher Nolan puzzle-film, an exercise in visual and narrative architecture, INCEPTION mostly works. As a dream film, not so much.  Any cinephile reading this can probably name a dozen movies that are more authentically dream-like than INCEPTION, starting with this year’s SHUTTER ISLAND and going all the way back to Robert Weine’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919).

Or the dream sequence from G.W. Pabst’s SECRETS OF A SOUL (1926, above). Pabst’s feature is reportedly the first to treat Freudian psychoanalysis seriously.  He even employed someone from Freud’s inner circle as a consultant. However, what makes Pabst’s dream sequence feel more authentic than Nolan’s is not so much a reliance on Freudian theory as the fact that Pabst based his sequence on one or more dreams from an actual patient case history. Not surprisingly, the entire sequence is drenched in sexual anxiety. 

And unlike Nolan, Pabst puts far more into his dream sequence than his movie attempts to explain, e.g., the rampant phallic symbolism which is never even referred to in the film’s title cards. Note the first shot of the dreamer’s romantic rival sitting in a tree, a symbol of virility, with a penis-shaped pith helmet on his head. When the dreamer, wearing pajamas, attempts to fly, he is shot down by his rival’s pop-gun. (Compare to the opening of Fellini’s 8 1/2.) In the next section of the dream, the dreamer passes through a vagina-shaped portal to approach the statue of a goddess. His progress is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a freight train. (Shades of INCEPTION!) The goddess statute has an actual woman’s face, superimposed through special effects. In fact, the goddess statute has more in common with one of Carl Jung’s animas than with anything in Freud – although it also stands for the dreamer’s wife. (Compare to Nolan’s use of Marion Cotillard as an anima figure in INCEPTION.) The next part of Pabst’s dream sequence, the un-collapsing buildings, seems to have directly inspired similar imagery in INCEPTION. Or maybe it’s just a remarkable coincidence. The image of the tolling bells with smiling women’s heads instead of clappers very likely inspired a similar image in Luis Buñuel’s TRISTANA. 

SECRETS OF A SOUL is a tour-de-force of German Expressionism that influenced Buñuel, Hitchcock (SPELLBOUND, MARNIE), and numerous others. If Nolan stole from it – and I tend to doubt that he did – he is following, however awkwardly, in the footsteps of the masters.