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

The urgent music of the Duino Elegies

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence . . .

Reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in one of the many English translations, what voice do you hear? The languid rhythms often found there suggest his poems should be spoken in an intimate whisper, but that's not how they're usually read in German.

Many German actors have made recordings of Rilke's work, and among the finest are these from A-Q Verlag: complete performances of the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus by Swiss actress Irene Laett. They come from live radio broadcasts in 1989, and Laett performs the poems as Rilke did (see the next post): with urgency and great line-to-line sensitivity. Here's the beginning of the First Elegy, followed by my translation and then the German text:

AUDIO: Irene Laett reads the beginning of the First Duino Elegy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but an onset of terror that we can barely stand,
and that we admire because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is frightening.

And so I restrain myself and swallow my dark,
sobbing cry for help. Oh, who can we reach for
when we need to? Not angels, not people.
And the clever animals already know
we were never entirely at home here,
in the interpreted world. There remains for us,
perhaps, a tree on some hillside that we look for
every day; there is still that remembered street
and the old loyalty of a pampered habit
that likes it here, stayed on and never left.

Oh, and the night: the night, when the space between stars
feeds on our faces; with whom has night not lingered—longed for,
gently disappointing and so hard for any single
heart to bear. But is it any easier for lovers?
Covering each other, all they do is conceal their lot.

Don't you know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms
and into the air we breathe, and, maybe, in that opening
space, the birds will find themselves in happier flight.

The opening lines of Rilke's poem in German

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf
dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich
wiedersähen; es bleibt uns die Straße von gestern
und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt –, wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,
sanft enttäuschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen
mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden leichter?
Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.

Weißt du's noch nicht? Wirf aus den Armen die Leere
zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen; vielleicht daß die Vögel
die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigerm Flug. 

The First Duino Elegy (lines 1-25), Rainer Maria Rilke, 1912
Translated by Frank Beck

Irene Laett was born in Zürich in 1929. In her youth, she studied painting with Oskar Kokoshka but then became an actress, performing on stage and in TV productions. She later taught elocution at the Saarland School of Music and the Academy of Music and Theater in Hamburg. She died in 2006.

Writing in the newspaper Die Zeit, Rene Drommert wrote that Laett's performances revealed "an intelligence that goes beyond intellectual training and vocal agility." Laett made studio recordings of the works of German author Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) and Swiss author Gottfried Keller (1819-1880). The Keller recordings are still available from Osiander.de, the German online bookseller.

The Duino Elegies are a landmark in German-language poetry. The ten poems were written over a period of a decade, but the excerpt above comes from the First Elegy, most of which Rilke wrote in a single day in January 1912. He was staying at the 14th-century Castello di Duino near Trieste, which is pictured above; it belonged to Marie Thurn und Taxis, one of his closest friends.

Much has been written about the Elegies, but one of the most useful insights comes from a letter Rilke wrote to his Polish translator, Witold von Hulewicz, in November 1925:

The "Angel" of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam) . . . a being who affirms the recognition, in the invisible, of a higher order of reality.

Rilke in Valais, Switzerland in 1925