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CounterPunch readers in the Greater New York area should bookmark the 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival website and try to make it to tonight’s 7 PM screening of “Lou Andreas Salomé: The Audacity to be Free” that opens the festival. If you’ve seen and appreciated “The Young Karl Marx”, I can assure you that this German-language biopic will remind you that the genre is still capable of providing first-class entertainment and substance unlike Hollywood biopics about industrialists or self-destructive musicians. I saw press screenings for this film as well as very good documentaries about the Armenian diaspora and how eugenics was practiced at Ellis Island that reconfirmed the value of a film festival I have been covering for CounterPunch since it began in 2015. This year, the films are being shown at the Cinema Village, an outstanding venue for better quality films over the years.
The photo at the top of the article depicts in rather sadomasochistic terms Lou Andreas Salomé applying the whip to Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. This photo, whose taking is a key scene in the film, is provocative enough on its own terms to deserve pride of place in a photography museum. However, the story behind the photo deserves a full recounting, which is the purpose to a large part of Cordula Kablitz-Post’s 2016 film, finally viewable in New York—and hopefully across the USA before very long.
Like Alexandra Kollontai and Victoria Woodhull, Lou Salomé was a transformative feminist figure who challenged oppressive patriarchal norms. Although she was not a revolutionary, her boldness and independence arguably exceeded that of any woman from her time. Living between 1861 and 1937, her path crossed with some of the most important men of her generation. Besides Nietzsche and Rilke, she was one of the first women ever to practice Freudian psychoanalysis. If anything, her connections to Freud (possibly sexual as well as professional), Nietzsche and Rilke indicate a breadth of learning that is unrivalled. In every sense of the word, she was a renaissance woman equally conversant in philosophy, literature and psychology.
If this was all there was to Lou Salomé, there still might have not been a basis for a biopic. What makes Cordula Kablitz-Post’s film work so well is that it fully captures the dramatic story of a unique woman who as the title indicates had the audacity to be free.
Four different actresses play Lou Salomé at different stages of her life and special credit should be given to the 81-year old Nicole Heesters, who plays her in her final year as the Nazis are closing in on the woman who is under suspicion for practicing the evil arts of Sigmund Freud the Jew.
Born in St. Petersburg to an army general and his wife, she had 5 brothers and was determined at an early age to have the same freedoms as them. We see her climbing a tree with a brother and tumbling down from a lofty branch. When her father rushes out to tend to her, he asks what he can do. Her reply: get me a proper pair of shoes like my brother so I won’t have fall again. It was her spunkiness that persuaded her family to begin calling her Lou rather than Louise, her birth name.
Preoccupied with the deeper questions of existence from an early age, she caused a ruckus in church one Sunday morning when after the priest said that God is everywhere in a sermon, she asked if he was also in hell. Despite her iconoclastic frame of mind, the church sent a priest to provide home schooling in philosophy and religion. All was going well until he tried to force himself on her sexually. Her reaction to him should have been the same reaction that budding actresses had to Harvey Weinstein.
Seeing her so committed to philosophy and religious studies, her parents agreed to send her to Switzerland where women were permitted to attend university unlike backward Russia. It was there that she became immersed in philosophy, including that of post-Hegelians like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
On a trip to Rome with her mother in 1882, she met a young man named Paul Rée who was the son of wealthy, assimilated Prussian Jews. A monthly allowance gave him the freedom to pursue philosophical investigations that overlapped those of Salomé. As is typical of the biopic, her initial meeting with Rée turns immediately to intellectual matters—specifially their mutual admiration for Schopenhauer. Long walks between the two covering philosophical questions did not satisfy Rée who was smitten by Lou Salomé as were most men. When he proposed to her, she replied that marriage was not for her. Raising children within the confines of the household was not her life’s goal. Instead she wanted to pursue her philosophical studies without interference. So dear to his heart was the charismatic young woman that Rée accepted a platonic relationship.
When Rée introduced her to his friend Frederick Nietzsche (played brilliantly by Alexander Scheer, who also played Wilhelm Weitling in “The Young Karl Marx”), she went through the same duck and parry maneuvers she went through with Rée. Except with Nietzsche, who called her the smartest person he ever knew, it became even more stressful since she was far more attracted to him than to his friend. Not only did she have to deny him; she also had to deny herself. Watching the three together will remind you of the love triangles in French new wave films by François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. Her ability to keep the two men at bay was the source of the joke depicted in the photograph above.
It was only when she met Rainer Maria Rilke in 1896 that she finally decided to give herself to a man sexually. He was 15 years her junior and deeply worshipful of her. In addition to her command of philosophy, she had also become a famous novelist writing under the name Henry Lou. Her success persuaded her publisher to finally reveal that it was a woman who had become a best-seller.
Rilke is played by Julius Feldmeier who fully conveys the puppy dog affection the young and as yet unrecognized poet had for the older woman. In one discussion between the two, he complains that his birth name René was chosen by his mother because it was sexually ambiguous. (She also dressed him in girl’s clothing when young, thus being the complement to her tom-boy youth.) It was Lou Salomé who convinced him to change it to Rainer even though she says at one point that it was his feminine qualities that made him irresistible to her. Rilke pays tribute to her in “To Lou Andreas-Salome”. The closing stanzas:
For I don’t think back; all that I am
stirs me because of you. I don’t invent you
at sadly cooled-off places from which
you’ve gone away; even your not being there
is warm with you and more real and more
than a privation. Longing leads out too often
into vagueness. Why should I cast myself, when,
for all I know, your influence falls on me,
gently, like moonlight on a window seat.
On Sunday at 6 pm the documentary “Armenians of the World” will be screened. Unlike just about every other film I have seen about the Armenian tragedy, this one is not focused so much on the genocide itself but on the efforts of survivors to keep their identity alive under difficult circumstances in countries near their homeland. Unlike Los Angeles, a home to many Armenians, the people profiled in Turkey, Syria and Lebanon are close to the place where the disaster took place.
In Turkey, Armenians exist as a faint shadow of their once thriving presence. Most are reconciled to living in a state that denies their historical claims for justice almost as if Jewish survivors living in a post-Nazi Germany refusing to acknowledge its crimes. Director Carmen Labaki takes us to the cities and towns that had a large Armenian presence and which now are only receptacles of long-deserted churches and homes that are barely more than rubble. It reminds me of a film I once saw about a Palestinian visiting the village he left in 1947.
We learn that many Armenians were assimilated into Syrian society, at least those that survived the genocide. Today, they have Muslim names and faith but have never forgotten their roots. All know their original Armenian names and how they were integrated into a generous Syrian society that was willing to stand up to the Young Turks in Aleppo that became a major haven for fleeing Armenians. It is a sad irony on the state of the world today that Sunnis were ethnically cleansed from East Aleppo, many of whose relatives welcomed the Christians with open arms a little over a century ago.
Lebanon has one of the greatest concentrations of Armenians in the world, where many enjoy religious freedom and the respect of their Muslim neighbors. A number fled the 15-year civil war but they still constitute about 4 percent of the population concentrated in places like Bourj Hammoud where the streets are named after well-known Armenian cities in Turkey like Yerevan where pogroms took place in 1915.
It is difficult not to think of the Jewish and Palestinian diaspora watching this haunting documentary and how urgent it is to create the conditions under which they can never be repeated for any ethnic or religious group. Given the travails of the contemporary world, this is a daunting but necessary task.
On Monday night at 9:30pm, you can see the very timely “Ellis Island: The Making of a Master Race in America” that is a powerful investigative report using a Ken Burns-type collage of photos from the early 1900s describing in horrifying detail the eugenics-based racism that prevailed at the USA’s immigration port of entry. In addition to the photos of immigrants standing on line to be “processed”, you see animation of the steps they were forced to go through in order to avoid deportation on the spot. For some immigrants, the prospect of being sent back to their country of origin was sufficient to commit suicide on Ellis Island.
The film begins with the words of Harvard professor Robert DeCourcy Ward flowing across the screen, words that can be found in a JSTOR article titled “National Eugenics in Relation to Immigration” from the July 1910 North American Review:
We in the United States have a very special interest in national eugenics, for we are here forming a new race of an extraordinarily heterogeneous character, and we have a remarkably favorable opportunity for practising eugenic principles in the selection of the fathers and mothers of future American children through our power to regulate alien immigration. The United States, rather than England, should be the centre of eugenic propaganda. Yet so far our people are practically silent on this question. Most of the discussions of the immigration problem in the past have been concerned with its economic side. The question is, however, a racial, perhaps even more than an economic one. The days of a dominant Anglo-Saxon immigration are over, forever. From a little trickling rivulet, forty years ago, when it furnished less than one per cent, of our alien arrivals, southern and eastern European immigration has increased until it now numbers about seventy per cent, of the total. It has become a flood, and the flood is increasing. Asia is contributing more each year, and British India has begun to send its advance guard. Already we have not hundreds of thousands, but millions of Italians and Slavs and Jews whose blood is going into the new American race. There are those who believe that the Anglo-Saxon American will disappear as the American Indian and the American buffalo have disappeared, and they have some basis for their belief.
Acting on the advice of this Harvard professor and other racists, the physicians in charge of processing immigrants at Ellis Island were looking for any excuse to put people back on the boat. One of them was a man named Jan Turtak, a Pole ethnically who came from the region of Galicia in Austria. While he passed the physical examination with flying colors, he failed the mental test (the doctors were on the lookout for imbeciles, idiots and morons—the approved medical terms of that era.) They asked Mr. Turtak if a man gave him 2 dogs one day and then another dog a day later, how many dogs would he then have. He replied 4. They challenged him: how can 2 dogs added to 1 give you 4? He answered because I already have one at home. This convinced him that he was a mental defective and to ship him back to Austria where he found a way to prosper and raise a family and future generations, including a man named Robert Turtak, who made this powerful and necessary film in an epoch when Donald Trump is reintroducing the same kind of racism.