A boldly unconventional woman gets a crushingly conventional biopic with “Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to Be Free.” Such a heavy-handed title fits the film perfectly, far more than the original English-language handle, “In Love With Lou,” which confusingly made the movie sound like a sitcom. In her feature debut, director and co-writer Cordula Kablitz-Post clearly decided that Andreas-Salomé, famed author, philosopher and psychoanalyst, needed to be treated not just with kid gloves, but with pristine laminated mitts, robbing her subject of humor, let alone the charm that bewitched the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud. This one’s strictly for audiences who love historical name-dropping; German box office following its June 2016 opening was negligible.
Kablitz-Post set herself the admirable task of rescuing Andreas-Salomé from being relegated to the role of muse, recognizing that her name is more often featured as an adjunct to famous men rather than included as one of the great original minds of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the way Kablitz-Post and fellow writer Susanne Hertel conceptualize the character, Andreas-Salomé comes off as a tiresome though energetic figure spouting “deep thoughts” that leave no impact when delivered like dimestore aphorisms. While trying to save her from being considered as merely an inspiration to the great men around her, the script inadvertently reinforces this impression.
What’s more, Andreas-Salomé’s originality of thought is drowned in a hoary flashback structure shifting back and forth between 1933, when the 72-year-old woman (Nicole Heesters) tells her story to biographer Ernst Pfeiffer (Matthias Lier), and decades earlier when her younger self (Katharina Lorenz) races through episodes of her life with all the depth of a serialized Parade magazine feature. There’s even a “Rosebud” moment in which a falling piece of paper, seen at the start and the end, symbolizes the origin of her intimacy issues.
Those issues begin in St. Petersburg, when as an overeager 16-year-old (Liv Lisa Fries), she’s molested by Hendrik Gillot (Marcel Hensema), a Dutch minister who introduces her to the wonders of philosophy. The incident makes her lose romantic interest in men. But in Rome, she meets insecure author Paul Rée (Philipp Hauss), who’s smitten and proposes. She wants a chaste fellowship instead, expanding the duo to include Rée’s besotted friend Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer, whose performance is impossible to evaluate since all one can do is stare at his novelty moustache).
At first Rée is more willing than Nietzsche to accept a nonsexual relationship, so he and Salomé shack up in Berlin, eking out livings with their writings until her early novels win a certain celebrity. Enter linguist Friedrich Carl Andreas (Merab Ninidze), more accepting of a companionate friendship, and he convinces Salomé to get married, whereupon she hyphenates her name. She respects her husband but is unable to give any man more — until puppy-eyed Rainer Maria Rilke (Julius Feldmeier) appears, exuding a feminine dewiness (so we’re told) that allows Andreas-Salomé to finally yield to passion.
All these scenes are interspersed with Andreas-Salomé as an older woman recalling her life to Pfeiffer as the rumble of Nazi propaganda infiltrates her reclusive life in Göttingen. Freud (Harald Schrott, doubling as God — literally) makes a brief appearance toward film’s end, paving the way for that “Rosebud” epiphany and adding one more great man meant to testify to the protagonist’s intellectual gifts. It’s a pity the script fails to breathe any real life into that intellect, instead forcing an unconvincing Lorenz to rattle off lines from published writings that lose their impact off the printed page.
The film is as carefully designed visually as a television commercial: Golden sunshine pours through every French door and window onto immaculate surfaces. Even when it rains, as in a ridiculous scene in which a post-coital Andreas-Salomé rejoices in her lost virginity by walking into a forest at night, heavenly lights shine through the deluge. Judit Varga’s repetitive score is overly fond of notes chasing themselves in endless circles.