Film Review: Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity To Be Free

An evocative, beautifully shot film about a little-known proto-feminist intellectual of the late 19th and early 20th century
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Provocateur in the making, 16-year-old Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937) interrupted her minister during his Sunday sermon, rising from her seat and shouting, “If God is everywhere, does that mean he’s also in hell?” Her challenging question and tone scandalized the staid, upper-crust congregants in her St. Petersburg church. The year was 1867.

But that was just the beginning. She was to become one of Europe’s most freethinking, proto-feminist, intellectual women (and the first female psychoanalyst) of the late 19th and well into the 20th century. Still, she was best known—perhaps patronizingly so—as a femme fatale attracting such major figures as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, among others. Some believe she may have had an affair with Sigmund Freud, who acknowledged her influence, specifically in her interpretation of the narcissistic personality. She was a muse and inspiration for many.

Based on her published and unpublished writings (or what remains of them) in addition to those of other notables, director Cordula Kablitz-Post’s film forges a singular character. Whether or not the heroic portrayal is fully accurate, Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity To Be Free is a beautifully structured film, pleasing to look at, and well acted with four actresses portraying Lou at different times in her life:Helena Pieske as the little girl; Liv Lisa Fries at 16; Katharina Lorenz at 21-50, and Nicole Heesters at 71. The German-language biopic marks Kablitz-Post’s feature debut following years as a documentary maker.

Set in Germany, the film opens towards the end of Lou’s life with Nazi pre-war rumblings encroaching. Not doing well and holed up with her maid, who may or may not be her biological daughter (Katharina Schüttler), Lou is recounting her life to editor-writer Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier). He too is fixated on her, despite being four or five decades her junior. The film moves backwards and forward in time, revealing facets of her unconventional journey.

Born to a well-heeled family in St. Petersburg, Lou was a tomboy as a youngster (very much encouraged by a loving father) and at the age of 17 studied world religions and French and German with Dutch preacher Hendrik Gillot (Marcel Hensema) before heading off to a university in Zurich. This was highly anomalous for a woman.

According to the film, she was sexually molested by Gillot, though others have alleged he was willing to leave his wife and family to marry her. Either way, Lou was set against marriage, viewing it as a subjugating and intellectually imprisoning institution for women. She was not interested in sex or romance, favoring collegial relationships with men who shared her psychological and philosophical interests. To what degree her principles were an expression of feminism or prudery or both is open to debate. Regardless, at 21 she was part of a platonic threesome that included writer Paul Rée (Philipp Haus) and philosopher/cultural critic Nietzshe (Alexander Scheer), both of whom were ostensibly in love with her.

For reasons that are not clear, Lou ultimately married linguistics scholar Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze), with whom she lived a celibate life from 1887 until his death in 1930. Over the decades, he too tried and failed to seduce her. But she did not die a virgin. In her late 30s she was involved in a passionate affair (her first) with German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier), who was 15 years younger than she. Other affairs followed and contrary to convention she, not the man, was the one to break off the various relationships when they no longer interested her.

Women of her class scorned her, not least her own mother (Petra Morzé), a smug, condescending matron who wished Lou were a dependent wife whose children would ideally keep her “well occupied.” Others considered Lou a slut. No rush of sisterhood in this universe. But Lou didn’t care. She rolled with the punches and went her own way.

All four performers playing Lou are excellent, most notably Heesters, who brings an added depth to the mature Lou as she looks back at her life, if not with regret than with a hint of sadness and wisdom. The supporting actors are fine too, from Peter Simonischek’s comfortingdad to Morzé’s brittle mom, from Feldmeier’s impassioned Rilke and Ninidze as Lou’s long-suffering husband to Scheer, who makes palpable Nietzsche’s brilliant, complex mind. The production value is also noteworthy. I especially liked the way scenes are evocatively set with postcards or primitive paintings of the era on which a live character appears and then the story unfolds.

Kablitz-Post certainly introduces audiences to a woman few have even heard of. Still, the questions remain: Does Lou really deserve to be more than a footnote, a curiosity? And would she have had the life she did without some serious money lining her pockets and the sense of entitlement that comes with it? I wish these points had been addressed.

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