Copenhagen - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to the Movies




Copenhagen is a marvelous three person play written by Michael Frayn (1998) and adapted to the screen by PBS.  It is available as a DVD through NetFlix and, I’m certain, other outlets.  The protagonists are Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who proposed the Uncertainty Principle, Nils Bohr, the Danish physicist who first articulated quantum mechanics and who served as Heisenberg’s mentor, and Margrethe Bohr, Nils’ wife and confidante for all things personal and professional.  The play is an attempt to understand what occurred on a particular night in Copenhagen when, in 1941, Heisenberg returned to visit the Bohr’s when Denmark was then a country occupied by the Germans and he was in charge of the Nazi German attempt to construct an atomic bomb. 

The play fairly calls for an analytic interpretation as the characters speak their thoughts throughout.  But it is the way it elucidates analytic principles in its form, in the essential question it is trying to address, and in the triadic/Oedipal relationship between the three characters that makes it irresistible to me.

The form of the play is an attempt, on the part of the three characters who are meeting again after they are all dead, to reconstruct what happened on the night when Heisenberg came to visit – and more importantly, since the meeting was abruptly cut short by Bohr, to determine why Heisenberg intended to come – what his hoped for intent was.  The players make three passes at the events of the evening, replaying them to ferret out what occurred and what might have occurred.

This repetitious returning to an event occurs over and over in analyses.  Most famously it occurs with screen memories: childhood memories that condense many events into one and that sometimes serve as a stand-in for remembering an event that is too emotionally charged to be remembered directly.  But more generally, memories resurface in the process of telling one’s life.  And when they do, we return to them with new information – we now know ourselves better than we did the last time we remembered this and we can appreciate aspects of it that we didn’t appreciate before because we know more about how we feel about the characters in the story, the situation that is being described, and more about the various layers of reactions that we have to situations of the sort being described.

In the play/movie, the characters remember together, discuss the memory, and then remember again, sometimes with a question in mind when they go back into the story and pick it up again with Heisenberg knocking at the door.  That they are dead gives them some room to push the memory further, to play out what would have happened; they no longer have the passions and concerns of the living.  Even this seems somewhat psychoanalytic.  I remember a co-trainee at the Menninger Clinic reflecting after a presentation on body language that the analytic posture, lying on a couch with hands together staring at the ceiling or perhaps closing one’s eyes, was the posture of death.  And perhaps the deeply relaxed position affords some distance – even a deathlike distance – from the emotionally charged material that we recall.

The essential question the play is trying to address is the question of intent:  Why did Heisenberg go to Copenhagen?  The answer that is achieved on the second pass is perhaps the most accurate, when he states, “I don’t know.”  We are now in the realm of Uncertainty.  In the play’s afterward, Frayn (2005) states that translating the German term for uncertainty – indeed the various German terms that are used to refer to the principle – is a matter of opinion.  Uncertainty, as a term, carries with it an anthropomorphic quality that exaggerates the rather prosaic – unsettling though it is to a physicist – basis for the principle.  We can’t know everything about a particle.  In order to observe it, we have to disturb it, to touch it, and thus to change it.  Though we can’t know the velocity of the electron if we measure its location, we have a rough idea of what it is.

When we apply the uncertainty principle to human beings, which every analyst and kitchen psychologist alike does, a great deal of uncertainty is introduced.  Frayn, as author, is speculating about a conversation, and even more about the parts of the conversation that never took place.  The scholarly basis for the speculation appears sound and the story rings true, but the scholars that he cites disagree with each other about what Heisenberg knew when, just as the protagonists disagree about what happened within the play itself.  Despite the uncertainty, as they go back and iteratively review the events and what it is that they do know, they construct a plausible hypothesis about what they don’t know – Heisenberg’s motivation, and then, from there, they construct an understanding of what took place when Bohr terminated the conversation.

The movie underscores, by the sumptuousness of the mansion that was ostensibly Bohr’s, the Oedipal quality of the son returning home aspect of the play.  Margrethe is appalled that Heisenberg, the little cheeky scholar whom they supported, is returning as a professor, as the head of an important Nazi office, and as an envoy of the conquering nation to show just how grown up he is.  Heisenberg himself, I think more stridently than in the play (and Frayn nicely discusses the critical responsive evolution of the play as it went from the London version to the one put on in New York, and I imagine another iteration happened on the way to the screen), articulates his experience of coming from a humiliated country – Post WWI Germany – and feeling a real sense of patriotism and achievement in the newfound power of that country, something that contributes to his awkward interactions with the Bohrs.  He is, on one level, returning as the conquering hero, begging that they recognize his accomplishments and revel in them.  On the other, he is consciously appalled at the potential power that the physics he and Bohr did together is about to unleash upon the world.  Bohr, half Jewish and aware of the evil behind the glory, is not the generative and receptive father, but an angry and disappointed one.  So much so that he can’t hear Heisenberg’s fantasy that the two of them, by maintaining control of the situation, can prevent horrible things from happening and instead shuts Heisenberg up before they are able to talk about this hope. 

The repeated references to Hamlet, the great indecisive Dane, help underscore, as my wife pointed out, the ways in which Heisenberg is visiting the ghost of his dead father, hoping to get from his ghost the courage to confront the corrupt murderer of his father, the Nazis.  But he is torn.  He also feels loyalty to this second and, in a twist on the Hamlet dilemma, for him, the primal father.

So, the play wrestles with a compelling historical dilemma, did Werner Heisenberg, the preeminent physicist of his generation, fail to produce the atom bomb for Hitler as he maintains he intended to in the play, because he maintained control over the process, kept Hitler interested enough, but failed to ask for adequate resources so the project could not succeed?  Or, as the play suggests in the final iteration, did the headstrong and impulsive, mathematically gifted Heisenberg need Bohr to steady him and to remind him to do the calculations?  If he had done the calculations, and realized how actually doable the project was, how might things have turned out?  Would Heisenberg have accomplished a mission that was (unknown to him) actually possible?  Was he looking for permission from Bohr the father to do or not to do the fatal deed?  Did Bohr’s fury that he was even working on the project, and his subsequent rage that prevented the conversation, create the ironic situation of Heisenberg, the headstrong, competitive and impulsive physicist, as the preventer of nuclear annihilation, not so completely based on morality, but instead based on a failure to know what power truly lay in his hands, and Bohr, the compassionate, considerate, measured peace lover who escaped to America and contributed to the atomic project there, become the murderer because of his fear of what the Germans might possess?

The possibility that Hitler was only prevented from having the atom bomb by a) Heisenberg’s dread that he would have it or b)  (and more intriguingly) Bohr’s refusal to play the good father – to be the man Heisenberg needed him to be - prevented Heisenberg from being able to engage properly in his work and to become the terrible but independent man that he could have been, which, in turn, could have resulted in the cold war playing out between a London-less Europe united under Nazi Germany and the United States, is a reflection on the uncertainties of our unconscious and interpersonal worlds that is well worth dwelling on and returning to more than once.

Reference:
Frayn, M. (1998).  Copenhagen.  Methuen Press, London

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Comments

  1. your wife sounds brilliant - wherever did you meet her? :)

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