Surrealism: Dreams and the Unconscious (Freud and Dreams That Money Can Buy)

Important note: Here is an essay that I wrote for university; within it, I apply some psychoanalytical aspects of Freud’s theory of dreams to the 1947 surrealist film, Dreams That Money Can Buy. However, I first explain the theory and concept in some detail, which may be quite tiresome to readers only interested in approaching this essay by way of the film. But, if you do hold an interest in dreams, or are interested in the work of Freud, then please give this essay a read – Thank you! – (Darrell)    

Sigmund Freud, one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of recent history, was born on May 6th 1856 in Freiberg, to Jakob and Amalia Freud. At the age of seventeen, he was accepted into The University of Vienna, where he studied medicine, philosophy, physiology and zoology. After graduating from university, Freud became extremely interested in human psychology, and, in 1886, he started a private practice, where he specialised in anxiety disorders.

For his treatment of patients, Freud developed a technique much like hypnosis; however, he avoided using any kind of suggestion towards the patient, creating a relaxed and free atmosphere, one in which patients could freely express any ideas, feelings, or memories that may occur within them. Freud then took these occurrences and attempted to analyse them, diagnosing patients accordingly. He called this new psychological technique “free association”, the idea that, when placed in a relaxed, dream-like state, away from the conscious reality in which we own social restrictions, a deeper part of the brain is opened, one that is key to understanding psychological disorders; that is, the unconscious. Freud soon developed the idea further by introducing “transference” between him and his patients, where he attempted to actively participate in any scenarios created within the patient’s free-flowing ideas.


With all of this, Freud went on to develop the psychological theory and techniques of psychoanalysis. Socially, these new techniques were radical at the time, and although brief attempts had been made before to explain a deeper human unconscious, none had succeeded in as much expansive detail as Freud’s work, and none had been so useful and influential in understanding psychologically charged medical conditions. With famous patients such as Anna O, the concept of a “talking cure” began to develop, one that would change common perception and reliability of old, traditional modes of medical practice, and, instead, lead society towards the new idea of releasing inner thoughts and repressions as a way of treatment.

Freud began to gain a great interest in dreams, and, in 1900, released his extremely detailed and expansive book, “The Interpretation of Dreams”. The theories on dreams detailed in this book initially arose from a time of self-analysis in Freud’s own life. He began to experience harsh episodes of depression and many unpleasant, disturbing dreams, of which, he started to relate back to his own childhood, particularly regarding his father, and a strong feeling of jealousy towards his mother’s love for his father. Freud later developed a theory based on this situation called the “Oedipus complex”. This theory suggested a hidden repression within the unconscious of children, one that desires sexual relations with the child’s opposite parent of sex, and may sometimes be expressed through unconscious dreams.


In attempting to develop an overall theory for how dreams work, Freud created several smaller concepts, all of which, he suggested, took place within the unconscious during the occurrence of dreams. These concepts revolve around three main stages for the development of dreams, they are, dream-thoughts, dream-content, and dream-work. A “dream-thought” refers to repressions and hidden desires, much like the “Oedipus complex”, as well as other types of psychical material. “The content of dreams … includes disconnected fragments of visual images, speeches and even bits of unmodified thoughts” (Freud, 1900). These are often drawn from wishes or memories of impressive scenes and experiences from life. They prominently manifest from visual sources, and are strictly held within the unconscious due to a censorship of taboo and socially unacceptable material while trying to pass into consciousness. It is within the unconscious, during the development of dreams, that this material is subjected to “condensation”, an attempt by the unconscious to combine two or more dream-thoughts together, in order to create a pictorial dream-image from the result. “Each train of thought is almost invariably accompanied by its contradictory counterpart” (Freud, 1900). This leads to Freud’s second stage in the development of dreams, the “dream-content”; because the dream-content is a result of the irrational and random effects of condensation, its material is often highly coded and unclear, all logical lines between thoughts can become lost, and any wishes or desires within these thoughts can become transferred to, and combined with, completely random objects; this is known as, “displacement”.

After dream-content has been produced, it needs to be interpreted and decoded into visual, pictorial arrangements; this is the job of the “dream-work”. The dream-work attempts to edit and arrange the dream-content by chains of evidence, often leading to misleading digressions, of which, work by symbolic representation, as well as a nature to “suppose”, and are still widely interpretable. The resulting dream-images produced by the dream-work can be highly misleading, disconnected and distorted; however, it is given a surface within the unconscious and allowed to be pictorially played-out through a representation of images while sleeping, resulting in what we call, a dream.

This theory was important to Freud’s work in understanding the human unconscious, he believed that understanding how dreams develop was key to understanding how many psychological traumas, anxiety disorders, and phobias develop within the human brain. “Dream-work is … responsible for the generation of hysterical symptoms, of phobias, obsessions and delusions” (Freud, 1900). The theory was also an important step in the development of surrealism, for Freud also used it to interpret everyday occurrences such as slips in speech, forgetting, and jokes as a mechanism of relieving tension. This blurring of the line between dream and reality undercut the principle of a reality in which we all share, creating ideas based on individual perceptions of reality, and questioning human rationalism.


Freud’s work on dreams influenced many artists and art movements, particularly surrealism, which was started by Andre Breton, a follower of Freud who wrote three surrealist manifestos. In the first of these, Breton describes surrealism as, “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express … the actual functioning of thought” (Breton, 1924).

For Breton, the most ordinary of objects could combine with other random objects through juxtaposition to create new arbitrary meanings, based on irrational concepts. Within surrealist art, automated forms of perception replace reality, in an attempt to establish a deeper connection with unconscious drives and repressions. This also leads to a questioning of our own relationship with reality, for the term “reality” becomes contentious when exploring Freud’s unconscious concept. If we are all driven by our own individually perceived reality through an unconscious mind of which we cannot control, then what is “reality”? Does the idea of human rationalism become widely obsolete? Surrealism attempts to explore these very questions.

The film, Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), directed by surrealist artist and member of the “Dada” movement, Hans Richter, is one of the most effective attempts at exploring dreams the cinema has ever produced. The film follows “Joe”, played by Jack Bittner, a man down on his luck with no money or job, until, one day, while looking into his eyes in a mirror, he realises that he has the power to see inside his own mind. Having discovered this power, he starts a business in which he sells dreams to disconcerted customers, in attempts to release them from troubling issues and concerns. The film is a declared surrealist film and contains many avant-garde elements. It was mostly shot in a Manhattan loft for around $15,000. Several other surrealist artists contributed to the film’s production, including Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Alexander Calder.


Dreams That Money Can Buy inhabits many aspects of Freud’s theory of dreams and the unconscious, coated in a photographic and cinematic quality, one that seems perfectly suited to the idea of dreams, their fragmentation, and their visual elements. Jo, as a concept, takes on a range of Freudian traits throughout the film. His ability to look inside the minds of his customers would suggest a power to manipulate and understand the unconscious, much like Freud’s efforts to explore the minds of his patients. It may also be noted that Jo’s initial inspiration to explore the idea of dreams arose from a period of desperation and self-analysis very similar to Freud’s. Jo starts by looking into the eyes of his customers, this would suggest a hypnotic or “window to the soul” quality often associated with eyes. He then attempts to relax them to a sleep like manner, as practised in free-association.

Many of Jo’s customers are troubled or conflicted, including his first case, a middle-aged bank clerk with an overly controlling wife who suggests her husband has “a mind like a double entry column, no virtues, no vices”. The dream in which Jo provides seems to suggest an unconscious repression based on the sexuality of women, and the man’s relationship with women. He dreams of an idealistic woman lying in bed, a man watches her from a distance behind bars, eventually rescuing or perhaps stealing her from an older man. In this dream, the clerk visualises a stronger and more determined version of himself, one that can act independently, wooing an attractive woman, and competing with other men. It would appear that this repression has been stored within the man’s unconscious due to his controlling wife and little self-confidence. Jo’s method removes any unconscious censorship, and constructs a visually approximated representation of the clerk’s repressed sexual and authoritative desires, presenting them within metaphors and similes. For Freud, sexual wishes provided “the most frequent and strongest motive-forces for the construction of dreams” (Freud, 1900).


Jo also treats a similarly distressed young woman, this time, the freedom she seeks is from herself; from a range of self-regulated rules and commitments she sets with pen and paper. Her dream consists entirely of mannequins, a woman trying to style her life, and an unrestrained man who wishes to marry her. The dream frequently uses fragmented still imagery constructed to create movement and meaning. It pictorially arranges the static material through jump cuts and editing displacements; images jolt and jump, mimicking reality, but in an irrational and surreal way. The sequence reflects an ability of film to “confer a dignity and poetic value on the things of everyday life, to turn them into what Freud called ‘thing-representations,’ indices of the unconscious” (Hammond, 2000, p. 7).

The concept of dream conflicting with reality is explored through the film’s most striking dream, within it, an audience, while viewing a film, are asked to mimic and recreate the actions presented on-screen. The film, in this case, represents the dream, the unreality, and the irrational world in which we have no control, in other words, the unconscious. The audience’s reality is thereby deducted and overpowered by the screen, they become automated and mechanised under the film’s spectacle power, just as in sleep, rational thoughts become convoluted, reality is fragmented; the unconscious prevails. This is similarly symbolised through occasional imagery present in real and dream stages of the film, for example, images of Jo’s eyes and characters from dreams are apparent in dream and reality, resulting in them both becoming blended and distorted. “In isolating objects, magnifying them, and recombining them in new ways, things were revealed … in all their fulsome, hieratic mystery” (Hammond, 2000, p. 7).


The concept of blended realities and materials is then taken further in the film by frequently random shots of coloured inks blending together within water, as well as the last dream of the film, in which a circus act is commencing. This circus does not consist of humans, but of constructed miniature characters, playing the part of humans; reality, once again, becomes extremely convoluted. In combining all of these ideas, and repeatedly repeating them, the film attempts to create a circulation of its core themes, looping and twisting them within and around each other, eventually resulting in tones of visual familiarity, and spatial dissolution.

Films ability to condense complex events evolves in much the same way as the development of dreams. We see this most clearly towards the film’s conclusion, in which, Jo is beginning to face his own unconscious repressions and desires. Complex and highly coded sets of situations follow, mixed within many visual metaphors, edited together to create a complex montage of Jo’s mental state, including fragmented symbolic representation of alienation phobias, and suppressed traumas of past events. No other art can as clearly simulate the subjective tone of displacement and dissolution present in dreams as film; in many ways, dreams and films are connected extremely closely. We might even say that the first ever films were viewed within our own unconsciousness during sleep, their concepts drawn up by our own experiences, their material directed and visualised by dream-work, and their shots edited and manipulated by the process of condensation.

The human unconscious is a deeply suppressed part of the mind, laced with invisible secrets and wishes that even the holder may never consciously understand. However, using Freud’s revolutionary work on dreams, as well as many types of strangely wonderful surrealist art, we can begin to understand our own minds, how they work, and why they make us do and feel the things we do. As the famous quote often associated with Freud states, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”.

Breton, A. (1924) Manifesto of Surrealism (pdf). Available at: (Accessed November 3, 2014)

Freud, S. (1900) On Dreams, Dover Thrift Editions, translated by M. D Eder, (United Kingdom: Dover Publications).

Hammond, P. (2000) The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, (San Francisco: City Light Books).

Richter, H. (1947), Dreams That Money Can Buy.

3 Replies to “Surrealism: Dreams and the Unconscious (Freud and Dreams That Money Can Buy)”

  1. Excellent analytical essay on Freud, Breton & Surrealism. Haven’t heard of this movie, I should try and locate it.

  2. What is the entire name of the writer of this piece? I need it for my writing task on this film. Thank you in advance!

  3. Hi Jens,
    Thanks so much for your interest in my article. My name is Darrell Tuffs. Good luck in your writing task; an interesting film to study!

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