1992 seemed to be the year the film industry believed Terrence Malick would be returning (or shortly thereafter); Variety even wrote profiles on his possible return, but of course Malick’s indecisiveness and molasses-like pace meant that “The Thin Red Line” wouldn’t surface to the public until late 1998.
However, “The English Speaker,” known to be a tale of 19th century psychoanalysis, was a project that Malick had been working on even ahead of his ponderous WWII effort. "It's something Terry's been thinking about since before 'Days of Heaven.' But it's new, not one of his old projects," producer Bobby Geisler told Variety in October of 1992 -- Geisler and his partner John Roberdeau of course being the aforementioned producing pair that were notoriously kicked to the curb by Malick after years of nurturing and working with him on “The Thin Red Line.”
According to the herculean 1998 Vanity Fair profile with Geisler and Roberdeau, the project was particularly personal and private and Malick would only let Geisler read it. “It’s as if he had ripped open his heart and bled his true feelings onto the page,” he said at that time. The Vanity Fair article author Peter Biskind said, “it is indeed a remarkable script,” describing it as “"The Exorcist" as written by Dostoyevsky.”
“Studies on Hysteria” was a book published in 1895 by Josef Breuer (co-written by Sigmund Freud) and “The English Speaker” script was based on their 1880s Vienna studies of famous psychoanalysis patient Anna O, an Austrian-Jewish feminist whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim. A hysteric who became a patient of Breuer’s following her father’s death, among her symptoms were "absences" — a change in personality, accompanied by "profoundly melancholy phantasies...sometimes characterized by poetic beauty." She also suffered from a form of aphasia; a language disorder where she was able to understand only German, but spoke English, French or Italian while doing so.
Breuer’s treatment of her various disorders, his “talking cure” -- which involved the revolutionary notion of speaking to one’s patients -- and the accompanying revelation that it could relieve hysterical symptoms, would mark the birth of psychoanalysis, the fundaments of which Freud would make famous (he rightfully credited Breuer's work with Pappenheim as the discipline's true beginnings; Breuer would unfortunately die before he could receive full acclaim).
According to an article in the Museum of the Moving Image, “the title refers to one of Anna's strange ailments in the script: her ability to speak English, seemingly out of nowhere. Eventually, we learn that she uses this as a coping mechanism for the fact that the languages she does speak have become corrupted in her eyes.”
“The English Speaker” would also become a pawn in the power play between Malick and his ‘Thin Red Line’ producers. In the fall of 1996 he demanded the rights to direct "The English Speaker" in perpetuity and if this wish was not granted he would not proceed with “The Thin Red Line, according to the same Vanity Fair profile. Malick had a five-year option on directing the film and at the time, the producers refused to acquiesce to his demands, with even 'Thin Red Line' producer Mike Medavoy agreeing that Malick should buy the rights back or enter into a partnership with them if he wanted it so badly.
It’s still unclear who owns those rights. Considering the major falling out that took place on the “The Thin Red Line” between Malick and the producers -- you’re really going to have to read this full profile if you want that dirt -- if Geisler and Roberdeau do own the project, hell will probably freeze over before Malick directs it (though money can change the mind of any broke person in Hollywood). If Malick owns it himself, well that’s another story....
While “Q” (which morphed into 'Tree of Life') and the Jerry Lee Lewis project (which still may happen one day) illustrate that Terrence Malick doesn’t throw anything away, it could be too late for “The English Speaker” as David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” charts very similar ground (Freud and Jung’s treatment of Sabina Spielrein, a hysteric with similar ailments that the two vexed partners would try and cure). Still, a Terrence Malick project is like no other and we would assume that if Malick ever does dust off this project -- completely plausible given his track record -- emotionally and spiritually it would no doubt venture into different territory.