For years I have been fascinated by people with fractured and contradictory biographies, so-called enfants terribles. Writer, philosopher, and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé was one of these enfant terribles who lusted for liberty.

The first time I read the biography of her, I was 17 years old. Her determination to lead a self-determined life and become a freedom fighter for her own cause enthralled me. Lou lived in a world where women were condemned to reduced, stereotypical paths oriented around catering to men’s needs. But even as a young girl, Lou heeded her own instincts and flatly refused to play the role society had cast for her. That’s why in the past Lou was sometimes unjustly labelled a femme fatale and scandal-ridden intimate of famous men like Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke.

When I first had the idea to make a film about Lou, the hero of my youth, eight years ago it appeared to me that nobody wanted the film or believed the idea. Although she was a star in her time, she has since almost been forgotten. She was an intellectual—one of the first truly emancipated women of the 19th century. Born 1861 in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg to a German-speaking family, she was one of the first women who wanted to pursue academics when women were not allowed to attend school. In 1881 she traveled to the University of Zürich, the only university in Europe at the time which accepted women, to study Dogmatic Theology and History of Religion.

Lou (Katharina Lorenz) and Nietzsche (Alexander Scheer) assessing each other’s work in a scene from Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free. Image courtesy of Cinema Libre Studio

As a writer, director, and producer, I always try to do films that I truly believe in. The process of filmmaking is so completely consuming that I only want to spend it on topics that touch my heart, or to which I have a strong emotional relationship. My focus has always been on the stories of artists, especially female artists. Lou was such an artist, about 100 years ahead of her time. She did not care about moral or societal standards and fought for her own personal freedom to live the life she wished.

In my eyes, Lou Andreas-Salomé’s story is not only historical but very modern, because we are now living in an age when Lou, with all her radicalism, finally would have found her place. My extensive experience working as a documentary director with difficult and eccentric artists such as Nina Hagen and Helmut Berger, as an assistant director for German directors Uwe Schrader and Thomas Brasch, as well as a director of music videos and short narrative films, had prepared me to elicit the greatest possible emotionality and authenticity from actors. We cast four different Lou Andreas-Salomés in the film, from child to old woman. It took about a year to find a wonderful team of actresses—Helena Pesker (6 years), Liv Lisa Fries (17), Katharina Lorenz (20-50), and Nicole Heesters (72)—who could represent Lou in a consistent way on-screen.

A meeting of minds: Lou picnics with friends, including the philosopher Paul Rée (Philipp Hauß), in a scene from Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free

There are two kinds of structures usually used in biopic films: To cover either an exceptional episode of the person’s life, or the whole life itself. From the beginning it was clear to me that the story of Lou’s life should be told from childhood to old age, because all her life had been so exceptional, rich, and encompassing of her different talents as author, philosopher, and first female psychoanalyst to study with Sigmund Freud. What I also found worth telling was the way she influenced great authors and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Maria Rilke—who claimed that Lou was the most important person in his life. These are just two of many interesting details of Lou’s life, which speak to the outstanding space she occupied during her time.

In the film we used hand-held cinematography to induce a feeling of authenticity and emotional proximity to the protagonists. A big problem was shooting the original historical locations that we wanted depicted in the film, because Lou was traveling often through St. Petersburg, Rome, Zurich, Vienna, and Berlin. But sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Myself, along with our Austrian set designer Nikolai Ritter, and the VFX head of the German company Mackevision, Juri Stannosek, developed a unique way of establishing the historic exterior shots of these cities. We used historical postcards of the cities and let our actresses walk through them while everything and everybody else on the postcard remained, of course, motionless. The only one moving and living is Lou. The actresses were shot on a green screen, our camera taking the same position as the historical camera that shot the post card. The effect is overwhelming, underscoring the deep, poetical heart of the movie, while making the production value appear much higher than the budget actually allowed.

The elder Lou (Nicole Heesters) in a scene from Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free

My film Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free still seems to me a miracle, because it is actually here now—the film exists and people all over the world can watch it. I am thankful and often wonder where I got this energy to manage the biggest and most ambitious film project of my life so far. It was not only my debut as a writer, director, and producer for feature films, but a period movie at that. It was such a long and hard way to finally write the perfect screenplay and without my fantastic co-author, Susanne Hertel, I would not have succeeded. We have received so many positive reactions from other women and men who were and are electrified like me and happy that the first movie about Lou Andreas-Salomé was being made.

Looking back, I can only recommend that every moviemaker listens to her or his inner voice and tries to find the story that she or he must tell. Then, find the perfect support team of people who are as enthusiastic about creating your vision as you are. If you get a “no” from possible financing partners, don’t be discouraged. Try the next one and never, ever give up! MM

Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free, opens in New York City at Village East Cinema April 20, 2018 and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal Theater April 27, 2018. All images courtesy Cinema Libre Studio.