Women are once again striving to find their power, while pushing back against a renewed shift toward patriarchal values and legislated limits on reproductive rights. The new film, “Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free,” could not be better timed.
History too often repeats itself. We are currently in a period when the rise of anti-democratic sentiment is sweeping the globe. Experts on authoritarian leaders and governments underscore that totalitarianism and misogyny go hand in hand. Even in 2018, women forging their own narratives get disparaged.
“Lou Andreas-Salomé,” a German language film directed by Cordula Kablitz-Post, begins with a scene of a 1933 Nazi book burning. Freud’s work is going up in flames. Psychoanalysis was designated as a “Jewish science,” and Salomé was a friend and colleague of Freud.
Reminiscent of two big movies of the late 1960s, “Isadora” and “Women In Love” — both made when the Women’s Movement was gaining traction — the film is a rich tapestry of history, emotion, and visual imagery. In the latter category, one creative motif employed by Kablitz-Post is the transition of her players, from one locale and time frame to another, via tinted postcards. First introduced as part of Salomé’s memorabilia, static individual cards act as a backdrop for actors engaged in an activity.
Salomé is a larger-than-life figure. Top thinkers including Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Rée, and Rainer Maria Rilke are entwined in her life. Yet, despite her accomplishments in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and published writings as a poet, essayist, and novelist (Her first book was written under a male pseudonym.), Salomé has remained woefully under the radar.
Revealing Salomé’s story in flashbacks, Kablitz-Post uses the talents of three actresses to capture the essence of her subject. Broken down into the ages of 16, 21 to 50, and 72, this approach allows the viewer to experience the evolution and journey of Salomé’s life. The audience accompanies her while witnessing how her personal history evolved, and the events in which they were rooted.
The interlocutor for this process is Ernst Pfeiffer, a young man who reminds the older Salomé of Rilke. Their interaction is not without conflict. Yet, Pfeiffer develops into a close friend, and ultimately serves as the literary executor of Salomé’s estate.
Salomé is introduced as a little girl, emphatically insisting, “No!” It sets the stage for her saying, “Nein!” to the strictures of the church, a mother who wants her to marry and become a financially comfortable hausfrau, and the men who want to possess and control her.
The character of Salomé delivers remarks throughout the movie which embody her thinking from each respective period. As a young woman, we see her lecturing on the importance of women having “freedom of movement” to develop a “true path in life.”
When Salomé meets the leading male minds of her time, most who will fall in love with her, the excitement she feels when engaging in intellectual discourse is palpable.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1861, Salomé is the sixth child of her family. Her siblings are boys. She rebels against the clothes and shoes that prevent her from climbing trees as easily as her brothers. “Why should girls always play indoors?” she laments, after falling out of a tree she was exploring. The tree will become an anchoring point, as well as a symbol of Salomé’s quest for self-determination.
The world Salomé has known is shattered when father, and ally, dies. She is 16-years-old. He leaves her a note which advises, “Become who you are.”
She takes his words to heart.
In a dramatic scene, Salomé challenges the leader of her church during services, only to storm out when he is unwilling and unable to supply a satisfactory response.
To advance her knowledge, Salomé begins to read about philosophy. She studies with the Dutch-born minister Henrik Gillot, who expands her horizons in the areas of theology, German and French literature, and philosophy. While under his tutelage, her youthful crush is taken to heart by the 40-year old Gillot. When he proposes to Salomé, offering to unencumber himself from his wife and children, she rejects him and his physical advances. Shaken, Salomé vows to close herself off from falling in love.
In 1880, Salomé attends the University of Zürich, the only establishment in Europe women were allowed to attend. She devotes herself to her studies until ill health sends her to the warmer climate of Italy — with her mother as a chaperon.
In Rome, Salomé meets Paul Rée, who introduces her to his friend, Friedrich Nietzsche. Both men are infatuated, and want to marry Salomé. “I will never marry,” she insists, determined to be free and independent. She is firm in the belief that that the life she envisions for herself is incompatible with a family. (Although during the film, we learn of how she has nurtured a child.)
Pressed by everyone around her to undertake a conventional life, Salomé continues to refuse.
“You want to change the whole world. I only wish to change my own fate,” she tells Nietzsche. They part ways. In a desire for fellowship, Salomé consents to live with Rée in Berlin. However, that is not successful either.
To focus on her work without interruption, Salomé agrees to marry the linguist and professor Friedrich Carl Andreas, but “in name only.” Their marriage was never consummated, although they would remain as husband and wife.
It is not until Salomé becomes deeply involved with Rainer Maria Rilke, intellectually, emotionally, and sexually, that she is able to integrate all the disparate aspects of her personality. Her view of the connection is extremely contemporary and acknowledges the principle of fluid gender identity. Salomé often referenced herself as “androgynous.” She felt that she and Rilke were so well suited because he was in touch with the feminine side of himself. Salomé believed that “everyone should find the opposite sex within themselves.” The age difference between her (36-years-old) and the 21-year-old poet was not a key factor. Although she called the summer of 1897, when she and Rilke were together, the “best summer of her life,” the relationship ended when she began to find his love suffocating.
“I was never able to compromise,” Salomé admits to Pfeiffer. She also recognized that she needed to control the demise of her affairs.
In 1911, Salomé journeyed to Vienna, to undergo psychoanalysis with Freud, and to immerse herself in that nascent field. Her ideas were thought catalysts to Freud, specifically on the topic of narcissism. She became the first women psychoanalyst, and practiced for the final third of her life — until the Nazis came to power. Her contributions to the scientific work on the role of women and their sexuality was groundbreaking.
I interviewed Kablitz-Post by email to inquire about her motivations in bringing Salomé’s story to the screen. She related that she had first read about Salomé when she was 17. Kablitz-Post found it inspiring that there had been a woman “who managed to live a self-determined, independent life — developing her talents, following her own needs against all odds, and becoming the personality that she wanted to be.”
For the construction of the film, Kablitz-Post knew it was essential to cover the totality of her subject, from youth to old age. “Every man that appears in the film is connected to a special episode in her life,” Kablitz-Post said, “but she never lost herself in these relationships.”
Kablitz-Post shared a concise mission. “I hope that a lot of young women discover Lou Andreas-Salomé as one of the first truly emancipated women in history, and then want to know more about her.” She added, “My film is only a short glimpse into her rich life and body of work.”
When the Nazis send Salomé a summons, she begins to burn her journals, letters, and papers. While looking into the camera, she quotes her writing from a retrieved page:
The world will give you few gifts, believe me.
So if you want a life,
“Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free” opens in New York City (Village East) on April 20th and in Los Angeles (Laemmle Royal) on April 27th.