Either-Or — Søren Kierkegaard & Regine Olsen — The Greatest Love Story Never Told
The story of the relationship between the Danish writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen. The greatest love story never told.
A number of years ago when I worked in the film industry, I spent an entire year researching a feature screenplay. As often happens in the fanciful film and TV industry, it was never made. I recently rediscovered my work while cleaning up and thought I would put it here.
Søren Kierkegaard is one of history’s greatest thinkers and philosophers — the Father of Existentialism, no less. His thoughts and words have inspired generations of philosophers and continue to be analyzed in the greatest detail by nerdy academics all over the world. So much so that the human behind the words has been forgotten and I think that this is why there has never been a film about him. If he were alive today, however, Søren Kierkegaard wouldn’t be a stuffy university professor. He would be one of our great thinkers but he would also be a George Carlin or Ricky Gervais.
The French philosophy giant Georges Deleuze stated that without Regine Olsen there would never have been a Søren Kierkegaard. To understand Kierkegaard, we must tell the story of his love for Regine and the massive sacrifices he made for his art. We must explore the Man behind his carefully tailored and fabricated facade, expose his frailty and his simple human need for love. The drama surrounding their relationship is central to the understanding of Kierkegaard’s existentialism because Regine remained “an essential subject” for him throughout his life. He gave up his one true love in order to think and write and change the world. And yet she remained integral to his life, as he tells us from his deathbed:
She was the one I loved. My existence must unconditionally accentuate her life. My writing should be considered a monument to her honour and memory. I carry her with me into history…
This is a simple story of love in the Danish Golden Age, but also about a tortured, brilliant and creative mind battling with the human emotion of love. A man loving so hard and yet unable to love because of a need to think and write.
The following is written in a treatment form — the kind of long synopsis used in the film industry. The quotes in italic are Kierkegaard’s own writing.
Based on a true story and formed by true emotions
Heavy, grey autumnal light hangs low over Bredgade Street in the centre of Copenhagen. A small, ravaged man runs about manically, distributing a little newspaper entitled “The Moment” to everyone walking past. The year is 1855. He speaks loudly to anyone who will listen to him that he is the only one in this country entitled to speak the truth about what Love and Christianity are. He collapses suddenly on the sidewalk.
The man, Søren Kierkegaard (42), lies in a bed at Frederik’s Hospital. He looks old — completely exhausted, pale and fragile — and yet his eyes shine with passion as he speaks to his best friend, Emil Boesen. The two friends have not seen each other for years and have a lot of catching up to do. They talk about how Søren’s father had cursed God many years ago and that the family was cursed in return. Søren was told on his father’s deathbed that his father didn’t believe that his children would live longer than Jesus — 33 years — since God wished to punish his family. At 42, Søren is grateful for his years but he doesn’t feel that he’s finished working and writing.
Søren suddenly takes a turn for the worse and Boesen asks if he is suffering. Kierkegaard answers, “No one has suffered as much as I have suffered — on purpose”, and he looks away into the distance.
A man watches the two friends from a dark corner of the room, Vigilius Haufniensis. No one notices this neat, handsome narrator — a cinematic reflection of Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms, whose name translates as The Vigilant Copenhagener. He tells us that the dying man has achieved great things in his life but that he has had to suffer to achieve his goals. And the suffering started a very precise point with a catalyst that changed Søren’s life. We move back in time to the summer of 1840.
Søren is 27 years old and together with Emil, he is attending a fine party with some friends from the bourgeoisie. The mood is lively but especially Søren is on fire and the centre of attention. His eyes are alight as he entertains the whole gathering with his sharp, merciless humour. He is incredibly funny and everyone laughs when he ridicules old N.F.S. Grundtvig by calling him a “yodelling jester” and mocking his considerable beer consumption. He continues with a less sarcastic review of the bourgeoisie’s favourite fairy-tale writer, Hans Christian Andersen and his quest to write about “exciting” things like Happy Boots — his new play.
The crowd laps it all up. Søren puts into words what others cannot or dare not do. He is the George Carlin or Ricky Gervais of his age — long before stand up comedy became a thing. He flirts with the most beautiful women and impresses the wisest men. Except for one. Søren’s brother, Peter Kierkegaard — eight years older Søren’s senior — who looks nauseated at his little brother’s performance.
Emil notes drily that Søren is in good form today and Søren confirms this. He has buried himself in his studies and his writing and is passionate about his work. Nothing can distract him and, if according to the family curse he only has six years left until he dies, then work must be done. He has already started writing notes for a book that will secure him a permanent place among the greatest Danish writers in history. Søren is ambitious and aware of his talent.
Søren suddenly sees something on the other side of the room. His eyes meet those of eighteen year old Regine Olsen. This beautiful young woman smiles shyly at him with her adorable eyes. Søren’s foundations are rocked.
Søren turns back to Emil. He has completely changed his mind. Now he has decided to complete a different project: “to live a normal life”. Seek a priesthood, get married and do what society expects of him. Emil reminds him that marrying is difficult when you don’t want to fall in love.
Søren smiles mischievously and points to Regine, who is small-talking with some other girls. Emil is surprised when he sees Søren and Regine exchanging intense glances. Søren doesn’t care when Emil tells him that everyone expects Regine to be engaged to the handsome Fritz Schlegel, who is standing by the fireplace and eyeing Søren coolly. Søren says that everyone should have an idea that they will live and die for. He smiles at Emil, pulls himself together and goes over to talk to Regine.
She was lovely when I first laid eyes on her, lovable in truth, lovable in her devotion. Touching, in the noble sense of the word. And she possessed one great power: an adoring gaze that could move mountains when she beseeched, It was blissful to enchant her life, blissful to see her indescribable blissfulness…
As he leaves the party, Søren’s brother catches up with him, and he is drunk. He is ashamed of Søren’s statements about the great Grundtvig, but Søren couldn’t care less. When Peter asks why Søren wasn’t in Assistens Cemetery on the anniversary of their father’s death, Søren looks at him and says it was because his father is apparently still alive and he’s looking at him. He walks away from his bitter older brother.
Søren is busy with his studies but it is clear that he has fallen in love with Regine. He finds a good excuse to visit the family — he has some books he thinks Regine’s father should read. As they stand in the living room of the Olsen’s home, where Regine lives with her parents and six siblings, Regine suspects something is up, but Søren does not reveal his intentions.
Alone in his apartment in front of his desk, Søren writes like a madman but he can’t get Regine out of his head. He keeps starting a new page, only to rip it to shreds. His love for her is all-encompassing. He seems irritated that he can’t concentrate on writing. After all, there is work to be done when the family curse has dictated that he will be dead in a few short years.
Emil visits Søren in his apartment in Nørregade Street. They are going out on the town and Søren suggests they go down to Nyhavn to “hear what real people have to say”. By the harbour they pass Hans Christian Andersen and greet him politely but then Søren looks at Emil and rolls his eyes. They enter a dive bar in Nyhavn and Søren greets several of the regular customers who respond in kind. It is clear that Søren feels more at home among ordinary people than with the bourgeoisie. They talk to a ship’s captain who boasts about all the women he has had sex with.
At a table with beers, Emil asks whether his friend is serious about Regine. Søren nods. He can’t think about anything else. Emil suggests that he do something about it. Søren hasn’t made a final decision but he admits that he needs to find order in the chaos and that it needs to be done in the right way.
The next day, Søren is rushing down the street. He stops and checks his appearance in a shop window to make sure everything is as it should be, before continuing as fast as he can without running.
Regine is very surprised to return home to find Søren fidgeting outside her building. While she is mature and independent, she is nonetheless a little shy. She tells him that no one is home but Søren is stubborn and interprets this as an invitation. Shortly after, they are standing facing each other in the living room. It’s awkward for both of them. Even Søren’s humour and charm fail him.
I asked her to play the piano a little for me, and she did. But it wasn’t enough. I suddenly took the music book and closed it — not without a certain force — and threw it across the piano and said, “oh, what do I care about music. It is you I have been searching for for two years…”
Regine is completely shocked. She has no idea what to say but there is only one thing to do. Without giving him the benefit of any reply or revealing any emotion, she somehow manages to get the feisty Kierkegaard out the door.
Søren stands alone on the street, totally insecure because of the lack of any response from Regine. His drive, however, is intact and he heads directly over to the office of Regine’s father, State Councillor Terkel Olsen. Olsen is just as surprised to see Søren and to hear him declare his love for Regine. He cannot give an answer until he has spoken to his daughter himself.
Søren is forced to wait two days before he hears anything. He can’t concentrate on his studies or his work at home. Instead he walks the streets, greeting passers-by, speaking to anyone and everyone about anything — an ability that made him much loved among ordinary people. The rush of being in love has made him an ordinary man.
At night in his apartment, Søren comforts himself by doing what he often does: sitting naked in his room and speaking in foreign languages. The foreign words pour out of him and he laughs at all the different personalities he can produce.
Regine discusses the matter with her family in the living room They even include Regine’s private teacher, Fritz Schlegel, who has a clear opinion about the matter. He isn’t convinced that Søren is serious. Regine’s father and her sister Cornelia just want to ensure that Regine does the right thing — follow her heart and think carefully about it.
After an excruciating wait, Søren receives a letter from the Olsen family containing an invitation to visit. He gets ready in front of the mirror. Nervous but confident. He finds it difficult to decide which clothes he should wear and changes his jacket several times.
On his way to Regine’s house, he passes Fritz. They exchange a courteous greeting but Fritz is clearly bitter and jealous. Søren hurries on.
Søren stands in front of the whole Olsen family and has to convince them of his love for Regine and his wish for an engagement. He is uncomfortable and nervous. Regine mentions that she also fancies Fritz Schlegel. Søren is silent for a long while until his self-confidence surfaces once again. He says that she could talk about Schlegel from now until Judgement Day but it won’t make any difference. He wants her. His eloquent speech with its romantic rhetoric pierces young Regine’s mind and innocent heart. She says yes. Søren is ecstatic.
This ecstasy gives Søren a strange, intense headache the next day — an almost routine nuisance. Visions of his father cursing God fly around inside his head. He sees his father as a young man standing on a hill in Jutland and cursing the heavens. These visions repeatedly haunt Søren. He throws himself headlong into his writing in order to concentrate on something else.
And then he throws himself headlong into his relationship with Regine. It’s an engagement characterised by idyllic and romantic rituals. They go to the Royal Theatre, for walks on the city ramparts and take a carriage up the coast to Charlottenlund or Fredensborg. Søren buys her fine gifts, like the expensive ‘Extrait double de Mugeut’ perfume, as well as candlesticks, a note stand for the piano, and the like.
One day, Søren invites Regine, Emil and Peter over for pancakes with jam. Peter is clearly pleased that Regine has managed to steer Søren towards “a normal life”. Peter’s satisfaction irritates his little brother who promptly takes the piss out of the esteemed Grundtvig just to annoy him.
Søren and Regine sit on a bench in Dyrehaven park north of Copenhagen. She is lively, flirtatious and has an erotic air about her. Søren is not a man who shies from the erotic, but he becomes uncomfortable when the mood shifts towards the sexual. He tries to temper the passion by reading aloud from sermons, but it’s clear that religion is being outpaced by sexual tension.
It appears that Søren’s project is running according to plan but it is then that he starts to doubt. Not whether or not he loves her — he certainly does — but whether he has made the right decision. The family curse looms and Søren is busy studying and writing. He writes like crazy — he often has three texts on the go at the same time and he runs between tables in three rooms to write them. Death is approaching and a legacy needs to be firmly established.
Vigilius Haufniensis appears in his role as storyteller. He sits in the background while Søren works and tells us that Søren must write. There are so many thoughts to be written down and so many people who have to suffer from Søren’s sharp criticism. The bourgeoisie, Hans Christian Andersen, Grundtvig, the Church, etc.
I have to unravel peoples’ ideas. Force them into life with the bee sting of irony, caricature and sarcasm. Slam down on modern society’s lack of originality, superficiality, lack of spirituality, its content-less worshipping of form — which is basically formless and, last but not least: the public, which is so anonymous and therefore the most dangerous power factor.
A meeting with his brother, Peter, in Søren’s apartment doesn’t help. Peter expresses his satisfaction with Søren’s engagement and hopes that he will now be “tamed”. He is haughty in his attitude. Peter’s success in life and his attitude about it is something Søren despises. He is bitter and his doubts intensify.
On a walk on the city ramparts, Søren admits to Emil that he is afraid that:
Were I not so melancholy and heavy-minded — the connection with her would make me as happier than I had ever dreamed of being.
He fears that he may be happier in unhappiness without Regine. That he can’t give her the happiness a girl like her deserves. He formulates it in a way that we sense he is bitter that his work suffers from the obligations of the engagement.
We see Søren in his apartment, dressed only in his underwear, as he tries to write, in vain. He throws a glass against the wall and slumps into a chair.
Søren begins pushing Regine away. He sends her a book — Carl Bernhard’s newly published novel — Old Memories — with a note that reads:
Who knows, this book may soon become representative of a bygone era.
He later sends a letter and stands under her window while his servant delivers it. He writes to her that if he looks at his watch then that means he has seen her in the window. If he does not look at his watch, then he hasn’t seen her. They stare at each other through the window. He doesn’t look at his watch at all, even though their eye contact is unmistakable.
On a carriage trip to Dyrehaven, he brings up the possibility of breaking off the engagement but Regine is quick to respond. She tells Søren that she simply doesn’t buy his psychological warfare and his desire to end the relationship. She rejects it outright.
Regine talks to her sister and confidante, Cornelia, by the piano in the living room. The sisters agree that Søren is as heavy-minded as their father — and they both know how to deal with him. Regine changes tactics and becomes more caring, with an adoring and heartfelt approach. Less coquette and more “woman”. Her strategy works.
Søren submits to Regine in her living room. I came, I saw, YOU won, he says to her. Regine touches Søren so deeply that he is ready to do anything for her. But his growing doubts have consequences. The following day, Regine meets Fritz on the street. She wrote this about it:
I met Fritz and nodded to him. We both hesitated but kept walking. I turned around but he wasn’t there and I blushed…
Søren buries himself deeper in his work. He gives his first sermon ever in Holmen’s Church and receives good reviews. He reads aloud, among other things, from Paul’s musings about his imprisonment in the Book of Philippians, but it clear that Søren has adapted the words to his own sense of self-worth:
My hope is that I will never do anything that I will later be ashamed of. What is best: to live or to die? Sometimes I prefer to live, other times not. But for the sake of all of you, it is best that I stay on this earth for a while longer. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.
It is clear that his work steals time from Regine. On her 19th birthday, she receives a package from Søren. She unwraps it with joy and enthusiasm but is very disappointed and confused when she doesn’t see a lovely present but instead a draft of a manuscript Søren wrote for an exercise at his college entitled The Concept of Irony.
Emil intervenes and has a serious talk with his friend. He asks, “What on earth are you up to?!” He senses that Søren has serious doubts, but says that he really has to figure things out. People in the bourgeoisie have started talking, he says. Søren mocks them, saying that they are not able to speak with one voice and prefer to hide in the crowd instead.
On Søren’s 28th birthday, Regine gifts Søren with a letter bag embroidered with pearl that she made herself. Søren sends a thank you letter with a rose. The rose is withered and dead.
Regine invites herself over and sits at the dining table with Søren and Peter. The mood is heavy. Peter wants to know if they have set a date for the wedding and the question irritates Søren. Regine has something to say, but she is having a hard time getting it out while Peter is there. Nevertheless, she does her best. She says she is convinced that Søren’s actions merely stem from his heavy- mindedness. Søren doesn’t want to discuss it. Regine senses the worst is about to come. And it does.
Shortly after, Søren makes the ultimate decision. He slowly slides the engagement ring off his finger and puts it in an envelope. He signs a letter he has written, folds it and puts it in the envelope.
It is done. Forget the person who writes these words; forgive a person who, despite trying, did not manage to make a girl happy…
Despite the decision, his writing doesn’t fall into place. He can’t work and love at the same time and, in the letter, he reminds her that he is probably dead in a few years anyway.
Regine panics and runs all the way through the city to Søren’s apartment in Nørregade. He isn’t home. A servant lets her in, and she writes a note to him in which she asks him to swear — for the sake of Jesus Christ and on the memory of his deceased father — that he won’t leave her. She puts the ring on his desk.
It’s a bold act for a young girl in the 19th century but, once again, she made the right move. She knows him. She challenged his faith and his paternal devotion — Søren’s core subjects. Søren sits alone at his desk. He puts the ring back on and holds back the tears.
Søren enters a little dive bar and sees four drunk men around a table. They greet him and he sits down. They’re in the middle of a conversation about women. For a change Søren listens to them without saying anything. The youngest man thinks people who are in love are ridiculous. Another man thinks women are a joke. When you leave them they say “I’ll die!” But then you meet them on the street with another man shortly after. The third man thinks the women you can’t have are fantastic because they inspire men to become geniuses. The fourth man is an eroticist and he enjoys women. He knows when he’s being baited. The woman knows the game well and they both understand each other. Søren listens silently and thoughtfully to the four men.
Søren becomes more and more stubborn. He tells Emil that he must do everything to force her to break up with him. It is only through her own initiative that Regine can retain her honour and have a chance of finding a new man. If Søren breaks off the engagement, her future prospects are ruined. Emil is faithful to his friend, but doesn’t like the idea. It’s up to Søren now.
Søren enters what he calls his Horror Period. He is ready and willing to put his entire reputation on the line and draws up a plan to give Regine a good reason to break up with him. To force her hand. He simply decides to become a cheat, a frivolous man. In short, an asshole.
To step out of the relationship as a villain — a top-notch villain, if possible — was the only thing I could do to treat her well and expedite her journey to marriage. Let my entire performance be as unpleasant to watch as a man drooling…
He ‘hires’ a seamstress from a fashion store and rents an apartment for her. Merely being seen with her on the way in and out of an apartment is enough for the servants to start talking and spreading rumours.
In a small, walled city like Copenhagen in the 1840’s, rumours were worth their weight in gold and the ones about Søren spread like wildfire. The bourgeoisie, already following the details of Søren and Regine’s relationship, take interest in this intriguing development and they are more than willing to choose sides. The bourgeoisie attack him mercilessly with words on the street. Large men glare at him in church to intimidate and threaten him. The papers take the piss out of him with unflattering caricatures. Even the otherwise tame Fritz, when he meets Søren on the street, swears at him and has to refrain from hitting him.
Søren rolls with it. He tackles it all with sharp humour, irony and a measured attitude. Regine is certainly not convinced. She sees right through his game and says:
If you could actually convince me that you are a villain, you would make it easy for me….
Søren watches a performance at The Royal Theatre with Emil. The entire audience gives him the evil eye. Literally. Emil supports him but asks how Søren can handle it. Søren whispers:
I see it all so clearly. There are two possibilities — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and well-intentioned advice is this: Either do it, or don’t do it — you will regret it no matter what.
Søren tells Emil that he has a routine for when he is sad. When he is alone at night, he sits naked on a chair and speaks a foreign language. Later that night we see Søren do it once again. At this stage, however, it doesn’t help him and he breaks down in tears.
Peter arrives at Søren’s apartment unannounced and scolds him severely for bringing shame upon him and their family. Søren kicks him out. He can’t even be bothered delivering withering, sarcastic insults. He just pushes his brother out the door. All Søren says is that it will soon be over.
Søren lies on the bed with the seamstress astride him. He just stares at the ceiling with empty eyes as she rides him. When they’re finished and she is putting on her clothes, Søren says to her, “Remember to tell your friends…” She nods and leaves. Søren is crying.
Søren slaughters his reputation in order to win the game. In order to give Regine a chance to live a happy life.
It was a glaring injustice against her to drag her into a relationship with me! God forgive me! I had to offend her and leave her. I had to be cruel in order to help her. This was the heaviest part for me.
But regardless of what he does and says, a strong Regine sees right through his act. She loves him and won’t let go. Her sister Cornelia helps her with her strategy. As Søren says:
It was a dreadfully painful time. To be so cruel, and to love as much as I did. She fought like a lioness. Had I not a divine level of resistance, she would have been victorious…
Søren has no choice but to have a serious talk with Regine where, for the first time in his life, he shouts at a girl. His words are painful and Regine is crushed.
Søren then heads to the royal theatre to meet Emil Boesen. During intermission, Regine’s father comes down and requests a word. Due to Søren’s respect for this father figure, he accepts State Council Olsen’s request.
Terkel Olsen is a proud man, and it is difficult for him to ask Søren to change his mind and not break up with Regine. Søren is shaken — that’s how much influence father figures have on his life. Olsen says that Regine isn’t sleeping at night and asks Søren to come and visit her.
Søren stands in front of the mirror in his apartment. He gets ready for the meeting. He looks like someone is getting ready for a first date. He is looking forward to seeing her. But when Søren and Regine stand alone at the piano in the living room, it’s hard:
She asked me, “Will you never marry?” I replied, “In ten years, when I get it all out of my system”. Then she said, “Forgive me what I have done to you.” I replied, “That should be me saying that”. She said, “Promise you’ll think about me”. I did. She said, “Kiss me”. I did — my dear God…
Regine takes his hand and pulls it to her bosom, urging him to touch her. The passion and all the erotic sensations are overwhelming but Søren has no choice if he truly wants to write. He pulls his hand away and leaves her. The engagement is off. Søren is crushed and can’t stop crying. Regine’s family is upset and even furious. The whole city shreds him to pieces with their gossip.
Søren’s brother, Peter, wants to visit the Olsen family and explain that Søren is not a villain. He is suddenly and strangely protective of his brother. Søren tells him that if he does, he’ll put a bullet through his head.
Søren spends the nights crying in his bed. He tries to work but can’t even lift the fountain pen. During the day, however, he is himself — cheekier and wittier than ever before — an imperative necessity.
The only person he is honest with is Emil, who suggests that Søren goes to Berlin to escape this witches’ cauldron of hatred in Copenhagen. Søren realises it’s the only viable option — leave the gossip-ridden city. He departs for a few months. Vigilius Haufniensis follows Søren to a small hotel just behind Unter der Linden and says that it was here that Søren begins in earnest the journey that will make him one of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers. He made his choice. His desire to write trumped his love for Regine.
Søren sits at a small desk and starts writing the title. Either-Or. He writes on with passion but stops suddenly. Looking out the window. Towards Copenhagen and his massive sacrifice.
I travelled to Berlin. I suffered so much. I remember her every day. Every day, at least once, I pray for her, often twice, besides all my other thoughts of her…
We return to Søren on his deathbed at Frederik’s Hospital in 1855. Søren tells Emil it was hard to return home from Berlin. It was only then that he was told that Regine had gotten engaged — and to Fritz. Emil reminds him that he returned triumphant — his book exploded on the European scene and established him as a great writer. Søren nods. He knows. But he also shrugs. Emil asks if he has seen Regine since and Søren tells him about the last time he saw her.
Søren’s voice is heard over images of their last meeting. It was eight years ago. Regine was on her way to the Danish Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, where her husband was to become Governor. On the sidewalk, Søren looks up and is shocked to see Regine standing in front of him. Almost frightened. For the first and last time since they broke up, they exchanged words. “God bless you. I hope everything goes well for you”, says Regine, to Søren’s great astonishment. He only manages to tip his hat before she is gone.
Back to Søren on the bed, telling Emil:
She was the one I loved. My existence must unconditionally accentuate her life. My writing should be considered a monument to her honour and memory. I carry her with me into history…
Tears roll down his cheeks, but then he smiles at Emil and seems to be doing better. He asks if he can get some food. A glimpse of trademark passion and stubbornness in his eyes.
Søren didn’t get well, however. A coffin is carried out of Vor Frue Church by pallbearers — followed by a huge procession of people wearing black — led by Vigilius Haufniensus. It is Sunday, November 18, 1855. One thousand people — a remarkably high number for the age — solemnly follow the coffin to Assistens Cemetery where Søren Kierkegaard is laid to rest in the family grave.
Regine is sitting in her little office in the Governor’s Mansion on St. Croix in the Danish Virgin Islands. It is a month or so after Søren’s funeral. She is reading a letter and we hear Søren’s voice read aloud from his last will and testament:
It is, of course, my will that my former fiancee, Mrs Regine Schlegel, shall inherit the few things I leave behind. What I wish to express is that, in my mind, an engagement is just as obligating as a marriage and therefore I leave her everything I have — just as though I were married to her.
Two small packages from Copenhagen are on her desk. Søren’s simple belongings and his notebooks. Regine weeps.