In Love with Lou

June 22, 2016

Was Lou Andreas-Salomé a writer or a muse, a feminist or a femme fatale? A new film by Cordula Kablitz-Post looks at one of Europe’s most influential intellectuals—and at her complicated life.

New ideas spread across Europe like summer lightning in the years before World War I. Philosophers asked radical questions about our place in the cosmos; novelists and playwrights took up social issues seldom raised before; and psychologists found layers of memory, previously unknown, in the human mind itself.

Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861–1936) bridged those worlds of philosophy, literature and psychology, making contributions to each one. Her novels and criticism challenged readers to rethink gender roles, and she became a pioneering psychoanalyst. She developed close relationships with Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud. But Salomé was also a person of profound contradictions. She had a reputation as a femme fatale but spent thirty-three years in an unconsummated marriage. 

Salomé’s story is about the clash between autonomy and intimacy.

She’s a figure who calls out for a film biography, and Cordula Kablitz-Post’s Lou Andreas-Salomé gives her life the serious treatment it deserves. In her hands, Salomé’s story is about the clash between autonomy and intimacy, which was a central struggle throughout her life. The film is grounded firmly in the historical record but selects from it judiciously to keep that theme up front. Titled In Love with Lou for its release in English-speaking countries, it had its premiere at the Shanghai Film Festival in June and opens in German cinemas on June 30.

Louisa von Salomé was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of German expatriates. The loss of her beloved father as she turned eighteen created a crisis of faith for her, and she plunged into philosophy books for guidance, turning first to Spinoza and then to Kant.

Liv Lisa Fries portrays Salomé as a vivacious teenager, with a wide-open look, seemingly ready for anything. The more she reads, the more she questions the Protestant faith she grew up in. Sitting in church one Sunday with her family, Salomé hears the minister proclaim, “No one must be afraid, for God is everywhere.” From her place in the congregation, she cries out, “Then is God in hell, too?” and strides out of the building. She steps straight into a cloudburst and simply stands there, beaming. She may be drenched, but it’s clear—even if we haven’t read Spinoza—that she’s now at home in an all-embracing world.

Katharina Lorenz is an actress whose thoughts seem to flicker across her face as she thinks them.

The scene shifts to Zurich, where Salomé goes to study, and Katharina Lorenz takes up the role. She is an actress whose thoughts seem to flicker across her face as she thinks them, and, in Salomé, there’s ambivalence and even mischief there. A girl from a family of five brothers, she’s drawn to men but also wary of their dominance. One day she has a fateful meeting in St. Peter’s in Rome with thirty-seven-year old Friedrich Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer), and his friend, Paul Rée (Philipp Hauss). Hoping to wow the beautiful young student, Nietzsche asks, “From which stars have we fallen to meet each other here?” Without missing a beat, Salomé says, “I simply came from Zurich.” She won’t be wowed—or cowed.

Soon Salomé has both men seated in a confessional and insists they name their sins. The list is lengthy but fails to mention any lustful thoughts or transgressions. Lifting an eyebrow, Salomé asks, “Nothing more?” Actually, there is: both Rée and Nietzsche eventually propose to her. But Salomé has something else in mind—a platonic fellowship in which the three of them live and study together.

Throughout the next summer, Nietzsche tries to press his case, but Salomé says a sexual relationship must be based on equality, whereas marriage places a woman in a subordinate role. The heated exchanges between the two actors demonstrate how evenly matched Salomé and Nietzsche were—in wills as well as their wits.

The scene in which Salomé rejects Rée’s proposal sums up her dilemma perfectly. It’s a quiet street in Rome, very late at night, and the two have been walking amiably along, even tottering playfully at the top of a wall. For Salomé, being out late, unchaperoned, with Rée, confirms their special friendship; he thinks it means something else. But his proposal of marriage seems to comes out of nowhere; Salomé rejects him; and he turns abruptly away, leaving her alone beneath a streetlight. “Why can’t you,” she asks in exasperation, “think of me as a man?”

In fact, the threesome soon dissolved, largely because Nietzsche’s sister intervened, yet Salomé and Rée did work out an arrangement. For several years they shared an apartment in Berlin, with Salomé supporting them both as a novelist. And then quite suddenly, at twenty-five, she met Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze), an unimpressive scholar with a compelling personality, and agreed to marry him, but on the condition the marriage not be consummated. Rée was devastated and never saw her again.

Ten years later, Salomé met the love of her life. He was Rainer Maria Rilke, a twenty-one-year-old art history student. Rilke pursued her with a mixture of diffidence and determination that Salomé found irresistible, perhaps because his youthfulness reversed the age differences she had known with Nietzsche and Andreas.  

Rilke pursued Salomé with a mixture of diffidence and determination that she found irresistible.

Julius Feldmeier plays Rilke, and his scenes with Lorenz have the quiet intensity of two people finding a joy together they haven’t known before. They embark on what Salomé would later call “the best summer of my life”—three months together in the Bavarian countryside. But their idyll doesn’t last. When Rilke has a breakdown during a later trip to Russia, she decides their romance is too demanding for her and unhealthy for him, and, painfully, they part.

Salomé goes on to have a series of lovers over the next decade but grows increasingly worried about her psychic health. In 1911 she travels to Vienna, seeking advice from Sigmund Freud (Harald Schott). With his help, she is able to uncover the youthful trauma that had made it so difficult for her to build relationships. She and Freud eventually become good friends, and Salomé begins her career as one of the first female psychoanalysts.

Co-written by Kablitz-Post and Susanne Hertel, the script tells the story from the perspective of the 1930s, when an ill and lonely Salomé (Nicole Heester) struggles to write her memoirs with the help of Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier), a young scholar. That structure lets Salomé comment on her younger actions and on their consequences. It also shows the two forming a warm bond different from any of her earlier relationships. (Breon Mitchell’s 1990 translation of the memoirs is out of print; this film may bring it back.)

Katharina Lorenz is a sympathetic Salomé, with Fries and Heesters equally good as her younger and older selves. Everything about the production is beautifully done, but special credit goes to Matthias Schellenberg, whose photography revels in the lovingly re-created period interiors and lush landscapes. The film is as sensual as it is smart—appropriately so, since Salomé’s own descriptions of nature are some of the most memorable parts of her books.

One of Salomé’s early biographers, H. F. Peters, pointed out that, while many modern philosophers preached freedom of the spirit, she was the one who lived it. Not that she needed their tutelage for the attempt: at twenty-one, she vowed “to make my own life according to myself, whatever may come of it. In this I have no principle to represent, but something much more wonderful—something that is inside oneself and is hot with sheer life, and rejoices and wants to get out.”

Frank Beck is a New York–based writer and photographer. He reviews poetry for The Manhattan Review; his photographs have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His blog, “On the wing,” can be found at www.diehoren.com