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The dreamlike dimension of Federico Fellini: the meeting with Ernst Bernhard

13 Dicembre 2022
The dreamlike dimension of Federico Fellini: the meeting with Ernst Bernhard Foto: Amy K. Rosenthal Amy K. Rosenthal
Amy K. Rosenthal discusses with Anselma Dell'Olio, film critic and director of the acclaimed documentary Fellini degli Spiriti [Fellini of the Spirits] (2020), Bernhard and his impact on Fellini

The Ferramonti camp, in the town of Tarsia in the province of Cosenza, was constructed by the Fascist government following the installation of the Racial Laws in October 1938 and represents the largest internment camp on Italian soil.

In May 1940 the approximately 3,000 foreign Jews who had stayed or failed to leave Italy were arrested and imprisoned as "enemy aliens." The following June, the camp saw the arrival of the first groups of Jews from Rome, including the psychoanalyst Ernst Bernhard – a student of Carl Jung - who had been practicing in Italy already for some time.

 The Berliner who escaped from Nazi Germany and had been refused asylum by Britain, eventually found refuge in Rome in 1936 together with his girlfriend Dora Friedlander, who later became his wife.

Bernhard spent ten months at the internment camp of Ferramonti. In his Lettere a Dora [Letters to Dora], edited and prefaced with admirable devotion by Luciana Marinangeli (1), he offers not only a glimpse into the daily life of Ferramonti, but also into his Weltanshauung. The letters reveal a life full of curiosities, from astrology to I Ching, as well as insights into psychoanalysis to the study of dreams, and above all, a dignity and inner strength in the face circumstances of enormous strife while he reassured his beloved Dora back in Rome.

In 1941 Bernhard returned to Rome and resumed his work as a psychoanalyst in Via Gregoriana 12, a psychoanalytic orientation he called "the psychology of the individuation process." This approach also attracted many leading figures in Italian culture, including the illustrious film director Federico Fellini.

It is fair to assume that the figure of Bernhard represented a sort of stargate for Fellini. Indeed, a narrow opening or tunnel that brings to light the adult Fellini - pinpointed, in fact - with respect to his identification with the native placental and maternal universe of his hometown Rimini: a great subconscious mother that, instead of nurturing, it nurtures its own son.

In this exclusive interview, ParkTime Magazine discusses with Anslema Dell'Olio, film critic and director of the acclaimed documentary Fellini degli Spiriti [Fellini of the Spirits] (2020), Bernhard and his impact on Fellini both personally and professionally, as well as considers Ferramonti in historical perspective.

Amy K. Rosenthal (AKR): Federico Fellini met Ernst Bernhard shortly after the filming of La dolce vita. After that film, Fellini fell into a deep existential crisis. Can you tell us what provoked it and why Bernhard was so instrumental in helping him to overcome it?
Anselma Dall'Olio (ADO): He fell into a deep depression towards the end of filming La strada (1954), long before La dolce vita (1960). Federico Fellini suddenly saw himself in the character of Zampanò [played by Anthony Quinn]. An artist creates his characters spontaneously, unwittingly. This sudden realization that the brutal, domineering torturer, Gelsomina's owner, had emerged from the depths of his own unconscious, was a devastating blow. The awareness that Zampanò was an exaggerated reflection of a profound part of himself, that his conscious self ignored but his art had exposed, blew him apart. He fell into the depths of despair; life lost its meaning. His wife Giulietta Masina (Gelsomina in the film) was so concerned she found an esteemed Freudian analyst, Emilio Servadio, for him to see. But Freudian analysis was not for him; it felt claustrophobic, limiting. He remained a friend of Servadio but could not submit to a healing discipline that roundly rejects mystery, the metaphysical, the spiritual, and the unknown. These topics are not just excluded but positively taboo in Freudian analysis.

By chance, one day Fellini finds a phone number in his pocket. He says he thought it might belong to some beautiful woman and called the number. Bernhard answered. (In reality, Fellini had gotten the number from Vittorio De Seta, whom he had run into on the street and had recommended he see Bernhard). Fellini fumbled an excuse but Bernhard answered, "Since you called me, it means we were meant to meet...Come see me in Via Gregoriana."

It would take an entire book to explain what Bernhard represented to Fellini. If you've seen my film, you know that the director acknowledged no "fathers" or mentors of any kind beyond his birth father. Regarding his intense collaboration with Roberto Rossellini, Fellini would say, "He was the traffic cop who showed me the way, period." But his whole life, he kept a picture of Bernhard over his desk in all his offices. He worshipped Bernhard. When he spoke of him, his voice would break. He said the amazing power of his mind was so powerful it could be intimidating. Bernhard would begin his sessions by doing the patient's astrological chart and a Tarot reading. This extraordinary, one-of-a-kind psychoanalyst help Fellini deal with the cascade of visionary images that had bombarded him since childhood. With Berhard’s help, Fellini was able to stabilize and use them, and avoid being overwhelmed by their power. He helped Fellini understand them as projections of the collective unconscious, and not just those of the individual: a Jungian teaching as well. Bernhard was in line with Jung but he was also something different and special, a Bernhardian, a scientist-visionary like his teacher but of a different temperament. He was a kind, sweet-natured shaman. He was in fact a real father, not a spiritual father for Fellini. He helped him be re-born both as a man and as an artist. All you have to do is watch Fellini’s films before and after his encounter with Bernhard to see his influence. Bernhard also said to him, "You're always drawing; why don't you draw your dreams?" And thanks to Bernhard we have this amazing “Codex Felliniano,” the magnificent, masterful record of his unconscious imagery, Il Libro dei Sogni [The Book of Dreams]. Bernhard helped him realize the importance of attending to his dreams, of embracing their mystery, expressed in symbols. Symbolic language – the language of dreams - is far more authentic than conceptual language: a treasure chest for a visionary artist like him. Dreams would be of paramount importance to everyone if only we paid attention to them, as director William Friedkin affirms in my film.

AKR: While in session with Bernhard, Fellini filmed 8 ½ (1963). While he was working on Giulietta degli spiriti [Juliet of the Spirits] in 1965, a film also directly inspired by his analysis, Bernhard died. In your opinion, is it possible to say that these two films would never have seen the light of day had Fellini not met Bernhard? 
ADO: Without a doubt. The critic Maurizio Porro, in Fellini degli Spiriti, says that 8 ½ wouldn’t have existed without Bernhard because the film proceeds as if it were a psychoanalytic session, by association.
The sessions with Bernhard gave him the permission to abandon the classic three-act screenplay and to improvise the story in a succession of images that have a logic of their own. The form becomes "Picassian," fragmented, with an evolution that follows the flow of consciousness rather than the classic structure with plot, beginning, development and ending. All of Fellini's films after his encounter with Bernhard lack a traditional plot. Fellini used to say that the plots of his films are to be found in the faces of the characters. After Bernhard, his art is freed of bonds, more original than before, without any structure other than his desire to tell stories on screen in his own, inimitable way.

AKR: Apart from these two films, are there other films in which Bernhard's influence is recognizable?
ADO: I think I’ve already answered this question. In short, it was the freedom to tell his stories any way he wanted to, to give free rein to his imagination and his dreams, following only the rules dictated to him by his unconscious. Bernhard taught Fellini to trust himself, to trust his intuitions and his spontaneous creativity.

AKR: Do you think Bernhard has interpreted or raised the level of consciousness with respect to the contact that Fellini had vis-à-vis other dimensions?
ADO: Both Jung and Bernhard helped patients to open themselves to all dimensions, to all fantasies and reveries, and not suffocate them, but to welcome and investigate them, to follow their lead, to pursue their stirrings and provocations. They were scientist-seers in the words of Fellini. Bernhard was also a pediatrician and chirologist, a psychotherapist with a generous world-view, large-spirited, full of love for life and the realization of his patients' potential.

AKR: In your opinion, is Fellini's dream dimension, reinterpreted through his interaction with Bernhard, more of an escape from reality or the safest way for staying in contact with it?
ADO: It was the safest, most direct way of reaching the sources of his creativity, of his art. It was his nourishment, a word that Fellini often used: nurture, nourishment were a fundamental part of his vocabulary.

AKR: In a chapter in the book Jung and Italian culture by Aldo Carotenuto, it is said that Fellini once went to a Freudian psychoanalyst who did not make a good impression on him. Jungian psychoanalysis is said to be more suited to artistic types. Fellini thought this and even stated so in an interview. In your opinion, is this true?
ADO: Certainly, as I have already said, he found Freudian analysis claustrophobic, suffocating, limiting for someone like him. He remained friends with Servadio, who outside his work as a psychoanalyst was also interested in magic and the paranormal. Jungian psychoanalysis, especially as Bernhard practiced it, is certainly more suitable for artists in general, and in particular for visionaries like Fellini. 

AKR: You did extensive research for your documentary Fellini degli Spiriti and I’d like to ask the following: What fascinated you most about Bernhard, and particularly about his relationship with Fellini?
: I don't know how to talk about “fascination.” It struck me that an artist who did not recognize mentors or teachers of any kind, venerated Bernhard as his real father, the one who had freed him from the bonds of neurosis and the cultural and social inhibitions that prevented him from expressing himself freely, from living a fuller, more satisfying life.

AKR: This interview will appear in an issue dedicated to the Ferramonti internment camp in Calabria (ParkTime Magazine  n. 9) and to the people who were detained there. Bernhard spent ten months at Ferramonti together with other Jews of various origins. What did you discover about Ferramonti and Bernhard's experience there while preparing Fellini degli Spiriti
ADO: The experience of Ferramonti, a miserable piece of real estate at the time, very poor, under-developed, full of malaria and marshes and insects, was where inmates were sent to die of disease - the barracks often floated in the water after flooding. Nonetheless, it eventually became a refuge, to be called nonetheless "The largest kibbutz in Europe." This was thanks to the director or warden, a very human man who interpreted the rules with humanity and respect for the prisoners. Because of his determination to spare the prisoners from a too-strict interpretation of the rules, the inmates ended up being allowed to organize themselves and even to help the local population and trade with them, exchanging education for whatever food they could spare from their vegetable patches. The warden sometimes took the inmates' children to get ice cream in the nearest town. The inmates were able to organize courses, orchestras, synagogues, libraries, schools (even classes for the local children) and study groups. It was a relative paradise compared to what Jews and other prisoners of war suffered in Nazi-run camps elsewhere. Having said this, they also had to build their own huts, tables, beds, chairs and any other furniture they needed with their own hands. They could only write to close relatives, and their letters were monitored; forbidden or suspicious words and phrases were blacked out.

AKR: Italians know little or nothing about the history of Ferramonti and Fascist internment continues to evade public consciousness or appear in today’s discourse on Italy's totalitarian past. Many studies have emerged over the past two decades but, as a historian, I have been a little perplexed by Ferramonti's descriptions as "a safe haven" and a "southern paradise" for Jewish refugees during World War II. What lessons for the future, in your opinion, can we learn from this chapter of Italian history, which is an integral part of the vicissitudes of 20th century Europe?
ADO:  Lesson? Hard to say. Only the luck of the draw. The fact is that the warden, Paolo Salvatore - nomen omen – was basically a good human-being, despite his role and adherence to the Fascist regime. But he was no saint: he was also a womanizer and classic homme à femmes, but he didn’t impose himself on women, he was not a rapist. But I understand that he seduced some of the women inside Ferramonti. I mean, he was no saint, eh? But the difference in a concentration camp is clearly made by the person who runs it and however he decides to interpret the rules. Salvatore was a typical son of the “Great Mediterranean Mother” of whom Bernhard wrote and theorized: good-hearted, sentimental, kind to children, and an inveterate Don Giovanni. But he was neither anti-fascist nor fascist, but “afascist” as the historian Renzo De Felice said. Salvatore had his own moral code.

He also treated inmates well in order to get information from them. He punished the clandestine trade in food and other goods practiced by the inmates, but not when the Fascist camp guards did the same. But when a camp guard kicked a deaf old Jew who didn't understand a command, Salvatore in turn gave the guard a beating.

The real teaching or “lesson” can be taken from Bernhard himself. He never despaired, at least verbally or in his letters to Dora. “I am invariably well”, he wrote; only in a secret notebook did he jot down his anxieties. He wrote to the Fascist authorities asking to be transferred elsewhere for health concerns but nothing more. He was the one who comforted and encouraged Dora, his companion and fake cousin, who suffered from severe neuroses and was deeply insecure. They communicated through the hexagrams of the I Ching and through reading the stars. These were authentic forms of communication whose meanings were conveyed through astrological symbols and metaphors from the I Ching consultations that eluded the censors.

Bernhard's example is the “lesson” that counts: never despair or lose your morale, stay strong in all circumstances, in full possession of one's physical and intellectual capacities. He was the prisoner who gave courage to his fiancé who was free in Rome, a fragile and cultivated woman, from an excellent family; but a Viennese citizen in a foreign land with depressive tendencies. Bernhard was convinced that whatever happened in life, any misfortune, was best overcome by maintaining self-confidence and believing in a divine providence that has our ultimate good at heart. I think this is the reason why he officially detached himself from Judaism in 1926. He chose Divine Providence. This attitude and deportment was very useful to him while interned at Ferramonti and after his return to Rome, (thanks to the orientalist scholar Giuseppe Tucci) when he had to hide in his home in Via Gregoriana to avoid being re-arrested.

The last lesson is this: having money is your best bet. The Bernhards (he and Dora Friedlander later married) were well off. They managed to buy what he needed in the camp: medicine, food and books, which Dora sent him. The regime Jews like Bruno Veneziani, his friend and patient, did nothing for him. Indeed, Veneziani and other patients in Rome insisted on continuing analysis while Bernhard was interned. Dora, who had a quarter of Jewish blood, managed to obtain an Ayran certificate at Bernhard's insistence. Tucci, a Christian, helped get him out of Ferramonti.

1 Luciana Mariangeli (a cura di), Lettere a Dora dal campo di internamento di Ferramonti (1940-1941). Aragno editore, 2011. The author knew personally and was analyzed by both Ernst Bernhard and Dora Friedlander. 

Credits Photos: Screenshot from docufilm Fellini degli Spiriti 

Riproduzione riservata © Copyright I Parchi Letterari

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Watch Fellini degli spiriti on Raiplay. Director: Anselma Dell'Olio

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