Walt Whitman: 200 Years On

For the 200th anniversary of the birth of our national poet (May 31, 2019), here are lines from Walt Whitman's 'Song of the Universal', which Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo has selected and set for chorus and orchestra. (You can hear a performance of the work from Spain at the first link below.) Whitman was one of the first writers who made me take poetry seriously, and I'm sure there are more echoes of his verses in own my work than I will ever find.

Come, said the Muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—concealed or unconcealed, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain;
Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening.

Written in 1871, this poem--considerably longer than the lines Gjielo selected--appears at the head of the 'Birds of Passage' section of Leaves of Grass. Is this Whitman's most succinct expression of his artistic credo? I think it might be.

Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Audacity to Be Free

The story sounds like one of this morning's headlines. A brilliant young woman has a teacher she admires, who offers to be her mentor. She studies with him privately and even moves in with his family, but then discovers he has divorced his wife and wants to marry her. This shattering MeToo moment is from Ruth, an 1895 novel by Lou Andreas-Salomé.

The Russian-born novelist challenged many accepted ideas of thinking, and her books struck a nerve among her mostly female readers. They wrote her emotional letters; some came to visit her at her home in Berlin. Yet today Lou (as she preferred to be called) is known primarily for her friends. A tumultuous summer with Nietzsche led to her writing the first full-length study of his works; by Rilke's own admission, her support made the Duino Elegies possible; and, under Freud's own tutelage, she became the first female psychoanalyst.

Cordula Kablitz-Post's film sets the record straight, establishing Lou as a highly original thinker in her right, with the force of character to live independently in a society that expected women to be subservient. Liv Lisa Fries (above), acclaimed for her performance in the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, plays Lou as a rebellious St. Petersburg teenager who dares to read Spinoza but finds her intelligence only makes her more attractive to a predatory male mind.

Katharina Lorenz has the challenge of playing Lou in her prime: Nietzsche called her "by far the smartest person I have ever became acquainted with." From the moment the two meet, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Lou sees that Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer), already a well known author, intends to dazzle her. She quickly turns the tables, engaging him and their friend Paul Rée (Philipp Hauß) in a deliciously funny mock confession.

Scheer gives us Nietzsche's geniality, as well as his volatility. When he and Lou climb the hills above Lake Orta, debating their future together, there is no question that she is his match, in both wits and will. In fact, their headstrong minds may be too alike; just months later, Lou decides to live with Rée, but eventually marries the Persian scholar Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze).

Thirteen years later, Lou meets a 21-year-old art history student named René Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier). She rechristens him "Rainer," and they become the closest of confidantes. My one quibble with the script is it does not make clear how closely they stayed in touch after their three-year romance ended; they visited one another and corresponded until Rilke's death in 1926.

Julius Feldmeier as Rainer Maria Rilke

Nicole Heesters plays Lou near the end of her life, confined by ill health to her Göttingen home, yet still changing in ways that let her form a final bond with the young scholar Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier), who will edit her memoirs.

The script, by Susanne Hertel and Kablitz-Post, deftly interweaves the story of Lou's earlier life with the new relationship between the elderly writer and the young man who will help keep her legacy alive. Matthias Schellenberg's nimble camera is equally at home in the elaborate, 19th-century interiors; out on a mountain lake; or following Lou and Paul Rée through the gaslit streets of "Rome" (shot in the oldest part of central Vienna; see the clip).

If viewers like this film as much as I did, I hope they will try Lou's fiction. A good place to start is "Before the Awakening," from The Human Family, a short story collection translated by Raleigh Whitinger. Lou's empathetic account of both sides of a seduction is the work of an extraordinary and life-enhancing imagination. Warmly recommended.

Matthias Lier (Erst Pfeiffer) and Nicole Heesters (Lou Andreas-Salomé)

One woman's vision

Carla Juri as painter Paula Modersohn-Becker

Christian Schwochow's Paula is the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first female painter to have a museum devoted entirely to her work. However, I must admit that, before I saw the film, most of what I knew about Modersohn-Becker had to do with her relationship with Rainer Maria Rilke.

The poet met her at Germany's Worpswede artist colony in 1900 and quickly fell in love. Becker, however, was engaged to Otto Modersohn, and Rilke became attached to Paula's friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff. Both couples soon married, but Modersohn-Becker and Rilke remained confidantes until her death in 1907. (The two conducted an extensive correspondence; Eric Torgersen's English translation of the letters has been published by Northwestern University Press.)

Schwochow's film focuses on Modersohn-Becker's struggle to paint in a world dominated by male painters, critics and art dealers. After mastering classical drawing and painting techniques, she forged a uniquely modernist style. Many of her canvases are portraits of subjects who suggest they have secrets, without disclosing them. One frequent subject was herself: Modersohn-Becker was the first female artist to create a nude self-portrait. The New Yorker has called her "modern painting's missing piece".

Paula Modersohn-Becker's portrait of Lee Hoetger, 1906

Swiss actress Carla Juri has the film's leading role. She won the Swiss Film Prize for Best Actress for her role in Eine wen iig (Someone like me) in 2012 and appeared in the 2013 Wetlands. She also performed in Peter Greenaway's Walking to Paris, to be released next year.

Paula was a labor of love that screenwriters Stefan Kolditz and Stephen Suschke worked on together for nearly three decades. Kolditz was one of the writers for the acclaimed German miniseries, Our Mothers, Our FathersSuschke is a noted theater director. Director Christian Schwochow is best known for his 2013 film, West, a Cold War drama that The Guardian found "intriguing", comparing it with The Lives of Others.

Strangely enough, this is the second film in a year in which Rilke is portrayed. The first was Cordula Kablitz-Post's Lou Andreas-Salome, which I reviewed for World Literature Today. The accounts of Rilke in the two films dovetail nicely: Kablitz-Post's focuses on Rilke in Munich and Berlin from 1897 until 1900; Schwochow's picks up his relationship with Modersohn-Becker about that time. (Julius Feldmeier plays Rilke in the first film; Joel Basman portrays the poet in the second.)

Paula had its premiere at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and opened in German cinemas in December 2016. It was issued on BluRay/DVD in Europe in May 2017.

Paula Modersohn-Becker and Elsbeth Modersohn in Worpswede, 1903