'Lou Andreas-Salome, The Audacity to be Free': Film Review

An involving portrait of a feminist trailblazer.

Cordula Kablitz-Post's biopic introduces a woman whose distinguished career wound its way through those of Nietzsche, Freud and Rilke.

She may be all but unknown to Americans, but Russian-born thinker Lou Andreas-Salome, reportedly the first female psychoanalyst, was viewed as a peer by such boldface names as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Rainer Maria Rilke. She was the object of both romantic love and intense intellectual admiration — usually at the same time, even though she was famous for refusing amorous affairs and the shackles they came with. Though Cordula Kablitz-Post's feature debut Lou Andreas-Salome, The Audacity to be Free views this very unconventional woman through the conventions of the biopic, its drama benefits from a viewer's ignorance of her story. Arriving here after a theatrical run in its native Germany and a tour of international fests, it holds interest for philosophy buffs and for those always on the lookout for new chapters in feminist history.

Portrayed here by four actresses, Andreas-Salome enters the film as a 72-year-old Berlin psychoanalyst (played slyly by Nicole Heesters) who, in 1933, has been forced to give up her career due to the field's Jewish associations. Though she refuses visitors as a rule, she finds herself advising a young writer, Ernst Pfieffer (Matthias Lier), whose concerns are "a matter of life or death"; his sense of urgency reminds her of Rilke (Julius Feldmeier), who courted her desperately when he was 21. She listens to his woes, and soon allows him to help write her autobiography.

We see Lou (then Louise von Salome) as a child, raised alongside five brothers and instinctively rejecting any rule beginning with the words "girls shouldn't..." Her beloved father encourages her curiosity, but dies when she's quite young. She meets an educated older man who agrees to teach her about theology and philosophy. But he abruptly proposes marriage, and in her disgust she renounces the institution altogether.

She decides love itself is incompatible with the life of the mind she intends to lead. Even an obvious meeting of intellects with writer Paul Ree (Philipp Hauss) — a meet-nerdy in a Rome salon in which they dazzle each other with talk of Spinoza — doesn't dent her resolve. He proposes marriage immediately, but she winds up suggesting a nonsexual cohabitation between herself, Ree, and Ree's friend Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer). (From ages 21 to 50, Salome is played by Katharina Lorenz, blending intelligence with willful naivete about what she can expect from those around her.)

Predictably, this arrangement works better for Salome than the men, who claim they can keep their love at bay but have trouble. The "trinity" falls apart after Nietzsche's sister, furious about what this "wanton" woman is doing to her respectable family, provokes a fight. Ree continues the platonic experiment for a while, but becomes jealous when Salome's first published works earn her praise and fame. She winds up agreeing to a never-consummated sham marriage with an older man, Friedrich Carl Andreas, adding his name to hers even though they'd live much of their lives apart.

Her relationship with Rilke (spoiler alert!) would, as the movie presents it, cause Salome to reevaluate the whole chastity thing. (Perhaps, we're told, because there was enough femininity in his personality to balance the masculinity in her own.) Kablitz-Post envisions a deflowering followed by Salome's blissful walk home alone in the rain, the world glistening newly around her. The two live together for the summer of 1897, which she calls the best summer of her life. In avoiding all reference to her career during this episode (she's seen helping Rilke with his own writing), is the film undercutting the message that work is integral to fulfillment, or laying the foundation for closing scenes, which hint that Salome would eventually regret her refusal to commit to any of the men who loved her?

We see the end of the Rilke affair (he's shown as increasingly needy and childish, afflicted by paralyzing visions) and speed through the later years of her life, in which she embraced erotic pleasures but continued to reject emotional intimacy. Scenes start to echo earlier ones: When one man gets her pregnant, Salome races crying through the night, climbs high into a tree, and falls intentionally as she did accidentally long ago. Problem solved.

Given her prominence as a psychoanalyst, the film may underplay Salome's friendship with Freud (Harald Schrott), confining it to a couple of scenes near the end. (It needs to devote attention to its memoir-constructing framing device, exploiting the friendship with young Ernst for some late bursts of self-awareness.) Still, famous characters here never feel like the gimmicky cameos they often are in biopics. She may not have given these renowned men the love they usually wanted, but they (mostly) seemed happy to have intertwined their stories with hers, seeing her as an equal even if history treated her like a footnote.

Production companies: Avanti Media Fiction, Tempest Film, KGP
Distributor: Cinema Libre
Cast: Nicole Heesters, Liv Lisa Fries, Katharina Schüttler, Alexander Scheer, Philipp Hauss, Julius Feldmeier, Matthias Lier, Petra Morzé, Merab Ninidze, Harald Schrott
Director: Cordula Kablitz-Post
Screenwriter: Cordula Kablitz-Post, Susanne Hertel
Producers: Cordula Kablitz-Post, Gabriele Kranzelbinder, Helge Sasse
Director of photography: Matthias Schellenberg
Production designer: Nikolai Ritter
Costume designer: Bettina Helmi
Editor: Beatrice Babin
Composer: Judit Varga
Casting director: Anja Dihrberg

In German
112 minutes