It’s 1933. Ill, lonely and threatened by the Nazis, the novelist and psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé is living in Göttingen, Germany. When the 40-year-old publisher Ernst Pfeiffer enters her life, he reminds Lou of Rainer Maria Rilke, her great love, and she slowly blooms again.
Pfeiffer, who greatly admires Lou, pretends to seek her help as a psychiatrist but actually is hoping for help with his marital problems. In return, he helps her to write her memoirs, and soon she finds herself reliving the emotional high points of her life. But Lou does not tell Pfeiffer everything...
Lou Salomé is born in St. Petersburg in 1861, the youngest child and only daughter among five brothers. She grows up in an active and cultured environment, but she feels like an outsider. Although she has a close relationship with her strict mother, Lou loves her father even more. She loses her faith in God at a young age, and, after her father’s death when she is 16, she becomes rebellious.
Lou refuses to be confirmed into the church and instead persuades Henrik Gillot, a Dutch minister, to give her private lessons in philosophy. She develops a crush on him, and he becomes a surrogate for the God and father she has lost. The 40-year-old Gillot soon falls in love with Lou, even though he is married and has two grown children. Things take a traumatic turn when he proposes marriage. Lou leaves St. Petersburg hastily, resolving never to marry and to devote herself to her spiritual goals. She vows never to get too close to another person again.
Lou is happy studying at the University in Zürich. She works hard and is learning a great deal, but she is continually ill and eventually gets pneumonia. She goes to Rome to recover. In the salon of suffragette Malwide Meyersbug she meets the philosopher Paul Reé. Only after Lou rejects his marriage proposal do the two become friends.
Reé introduces Lou to his good friend Friedrich Nietzsche, who immediately sees her as a soul mate. Like Reé, he suffers unrequited love for Lou; nevertheless, the two start planning a platonic commune where they can study together.
A visit to Tautenburg with Nietzsche ends as a fiasco for Lou. Elisabeth Nietzsche sees Lou as threat to her own future plans and drives a wedge between her brother and Lou. Reé and Lou abandon the volatile Nietzsche, and the two head to Berlin. Reé still suffers from his unhappy love for Lou; he is jealous and controlling. Meanwhile, Lou’s first novel is a success, but Reé is making no progress in his own professional career.
Lou can no longer accept their living together. When she makes the acquaintance of Freidrich Carl Andreas, a prominent scholar of Persian literature, she accepts his proposal on the condition that the marriage never be consummated. Andreas agrees. Deeply hurt, Reé moves out of their apartment, and they never see each other again.
Now Lou concentrates on her writing. She has achieved many of her spiritual goals, but she isn’t happy. Although her bronchitis has become chronic, Lou does not spare herself. She works as though under duress, turning out one book after another.
When she meets Rainer Maria Rilke, an obscure 21-year-old poet, the famous 36-year old novelist at first underestimates him. But she likes Rilke and helps him. Ultimately, she changes her view of him, as his stubborn wooing breaks through her hard shell and persuades her to abandon her vow never to fall in love. Lou now seems to be at one with herself and with the world. She focuses solely on Rilke, who wants her to be his “lover, muse and mother”. But her love for the much younger man has no future. He has severe emotional problems, and Lou eventually ends the relationship.
As if to numb herself, Lou continues to explore her newly discovered sexuality in a series of brief affairs. Before long, she puts herself in deadly danger when she ends an unwanted pregnancy by jumping from a tree.
The scene shifts to Vienna in 1911. Lou seeks advice from Sigmund Freud and even decides to be psychoanalyzed. Under treatment with Freud, she finally uncovers the trauma that has troubled her since her youth.
We return to Gottingen in 1933. A close friendship has developed between Lou and Pfeiffer. But they come into conflict when Pfeiffer confronts her with unpleasant questions—and an observation—about her difficult relationship with her husband. Lou says she no longer wants to see Pfeiffer and tries to continue typing her memoir herself, but her poor vision makes that impossible. Lou is relieved when Pfeiffer contacts her again.
When Lou receives a summons from the Gestapo, the two of them burn her personal diaries and letters, but Lou’s memoirs—or at least those that have been handed down to posterity—have now been written.