Dr. Schreber, I presume?

I’m a big fan of the movie Dark City. I’ve watched it dozens of times.

(Mild spoilers below.)

Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of Dr. Schreber is arguably, in my opinion, the best of his life. Sure, he’s now known for playing Jack Bauer, and for various roles past, stretching back to “Lost Boys.” But for me, Kiefer’s mastery of his craft is best shown by his performance as the one lucid human in a city living in eternally forced delusion; a quiet, damaged hero.

I never attached any significance to the name of his character. Today, I stumbled into its origin quite by accident, while reading a review of a book about hypochondria.

Daniel Paul Schreber is the least known of Dillon's subjects, and we may fairly regard him as the one plunged deepest into the pit of hypochondriac delusion, since it was definitely not true that 240 Benedictine monks were living in his skull. Freud wrote him up in 1911, but his own account was given a few years earlier in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. Born in Leipzig in 1842, Schreber became an eminent jurist and a heroic sufferer. He was subject, he felt, to assaults on his body which he called 'miracles', though they were of a malign type. Dillon describes an array of 'extraordinary amputations, evacuations and disappearances from within the unguarded precincts of his body'. He was bombarded by rays. Sometimes his stomach vanished and his food went straight down to his legs. He had survived so much he feared he might be immortal. He was also turning into a woman, who would be impregnated by God and found a new race (he was the sole survivor of the old one, since all the people walking about in the world were dead already). From time to time Schreber was able to corral his delusions and live among the well. But after five years during which his symptoms remitted he became subject to the appalling conviction that his body was dead and rotting, while his head was still alive.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably won’t see how completely fitting the character’s name is.

Dr. Schreber lives in a nightmare landscape, an ever-changing world where the buildings of the city change routinely, and even the people around him change their identities and personalities. The entire city is unaware, and he alone sees the machinations of the world. His own memory has been torn from him; all he has left is a working knowledge of psychiatry. One has to wonder if he chose this name for himself, given his background and present circumstances.

He is the only human who is not walking around in a false reality (the sole “survivor” of his kind). He is the only living (wakeful) man in a city of the dead (the denizens, who live in a dream, or the Strangers, who inhabit the bodies of the dead).

I think I’ll dig out the DVD and watch it again soon.

Aside from this enlightening tidbit about a beloved film, the article itself is a review of a book profiling hypochondriacs from history. An interesting read, especially if you are, like me, so afflicted.

What is going on in there? - London Review of Books