Lou Andreas-Salomé led an almost infinitely varied life. The Russian-born German polymath (1861-1937) was a prolific novelist, an essayist whose work earned the praise of Sigmund Freud, one of the first practicing psychoanalysts, and a pioneer of the feminist movement in her writings on women and sexual pleasure. She was also the muse of some of the most prominent fin-de-siècle thinkers, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Her life could certainly be called cinematic.
The movie Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free will debut in the US this week, after a successful run in Europe in the past two years. The film, directed by Cordula Kablitz-Post, paints an endearing portrait of Salomé. Using the convenient narrative device of the “frame story,” it portrays an elderly Salomé dictating her memories to the philologist Ernst Pfeiffer. (The real-life Ernst Pfeiffer edited Salomé’s archive.)
We see Salomé grow up in a well-to-do family in St. Petersburg, where she stubbornly refuses to adhere to the moral code of “a proper young lady,” gravitating instead to the writings of Spinoza and Aristotle. When her tutor, a pastor 40 years her senior, makes a pass at her and asks for her hand, she swears never to get romantically involved with any man.
She progresses through a quintessential belle-époque fantasy, full of lakeside sojourns, intellectual and literary salons, andbanter with philosophers and literatiShe initially sets out to form a “trinity” with Friedrich Nietzsche and Paul Rée, a sort of chaste communal living for the sake of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, but, not surprisingly, the plan goes south because both philosophers want to marry her. So she takes Rilke as a lover while in a celibate marriage with orientalist Friedrich Carl Andreas, an unusual arrangement that lasted until her death.
The film renders the dreamy fin-de-siècle fantasy with Arcadian lakeside scenes and lush gardens that teem with twee wrought-iron furniture. The wide-shot cityscapes look almost like moving postcards. (Trust me, it looks better than it sounds in words.)
While thoroughly enjoyable, The Audacity to be Free portrays Lou Salomé mainly as the physical and intellectual muse of broody intellectual men, who disregard Salomé’s celibacy because they’re wooed by her wits. Even Rilke, who is credited to be responsible for her sexual awakening, ends up pining for her total devotion, expecting her to serve the roles of a mother and a lover. By contrast, her husband Carl Andreas is ingloriously portrayed in the act of trying to take advantage of her sexually while she is asleep, despite the fact that they formally agreed on a Scheinehe, or sham marriage.
Lou Salomé, first and foremost — though undoubtedly a muse and seductress who caused the undoing of countless aspiring suitors — was an accomplished intellectual figure, widely acclaimed for her writings across multiple disciplines. Strangely, her accomplishments become side notes in the movie. At one point, Salomé suggests that she, her husband, and Rilke go see a play by Henrik Ibsen. We never learn that Salomé wrote a lengthy essay, “Henrik Ibsens Frauengestalten” (1892), on female characters created by the Danish playwright.
When Rainer Maria Rilke (then called René) bemoans the fact that he has trouble getting published, she tells him that, early in her career, she had to write under a pseudonym because nobody would read the writings of a woman. He replies that his given name, René, sounds like a female name too.
What she is referring to is her debut novel Im Kampf um Gott, which deals with loss of faith, which was widely praised by critics and, once the pseudonym cover was dropped, allowed Salomé to enter the intellectual circles of Berlin. Her encounter with Freud is pushed to the tail end of the movie; we see him psychoanalyze her, even though they maintained a friendship of 25 years, and she was an intellectual peer rather than a mere disciple.
Nicole Heesters, who plays Lou Salomé in old age as she compiles her autobiography, imbues the character with witty gravitas. But Katharina Lorenz, who plays Salomé as a young woman, makes her seem like a starry-eyed ingénue who utters proto-feminist platitudes with the peppiness of a Disney heroine, or a belle-époque Lena Dunham.
Ironically, even as the character of Lou Salomé seems overshadowed by the men who surround her, the male characters are not fleshed out at all. Instead, those who play Rée, Nietzsche, and Rilke act out caricatures. Like the Dalì and Hemingway characters in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, they talk in philosophical and poetic quotes and anecdotes.
In all, Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity To Be Free turns Salomé into a young-adult fantasy heroine, with the romantic complications of a love triangle in The Hunger Games, suitors trying their best to break the hard shell of the female protagonist. Though enjoyable, it distracts from the magnitude of Salomé’s accomplishments. Still, perhaps it can serve a purpose, if it attracts younger audiences to a seminal intellectual and feminist figure who deserves a closer look.
Lou Salomé, The Audacity To Be Free premiered at the SR Festival in New York in March. It will open on April 20 in select theaters.