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 wants to divorce his wife and 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 failed seduction is the work of an extraordinary and life-enhancing imagination. Warmly recommended.

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


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