Dir/scr: Dominik Graf. Germany-Austria. 2014. 170mins
Dominik Graf’s handsomely-mounted Beloved Sisters (Die Gekiebten Schwestern) is an in-depth and extensive exploration of an unconventional love affair in a highly conventional society - that between the 18th century German philosopher and poet Friedrich Schiller and the sisters Caroline von Beulwitz and Charlotte von Lengefeld.
Bright Star or Immortal Beloved may be the parallels, but Beloved Sisters is a little more remote than even those literary screen romances.
Graf (The Red Cockatoo) has long been intrigued by the dark corners of a love triangle, and Beloved Sisters probes its angles fully. While the characters who appear onscreen clearly existed and enjoyed a particularly - if not suspiciously - close relationship, Graf has coloured in his screenplay to award them a passionate 13-year love affair with all the twists and turns to be expected from this undertaking.
It’s a challenging prospect at almost three hours duration and set largely amongst the French-speaking aristocracy of Weimar, Jena and Rudolstadt in the late 1700s, but Beloved Sisters can occasionally thrill with its confident mise-en-scene, splendid craft credits, and solid characterisation, particularly from the sisters.
With its more accessible focus on the love story rather than Schiller per se, it could perform solidly in Germany, where audiences will be more familiar with the milieu and prepared for its demands. But Beloved Sisters is still a tricky international prospect for the more rarefied end of the cultural spectrum, gaining Germany’s Graf more admirers, if not quite the commercial rewards that have so far eluded the director at the box office and seen him work successfully in television for the last eight years. Bright Star or Immortal Beloved may be the parallels, but Beloved Sisters is a little more remote than even those literary screen romances.
Later became the star of Weimar literary society and a close friend of Goethe (never seen), Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) is introduced to Two Sisters as a penniless young poet who has been exiled from his native Wurttemberg having already made a controversial debut with his play The Robbers. Certainly he enjoyed a close friendship with the impoverished aristocrat Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herzsprung) and married her sister Charlotte (Henriette Confurius), although speculation as to the nature of their relationship remains just that.
Graf, as his own narrator, creates a triangle, or, as the screenplay calls it, a trinity, for Schiller to inhabit. Although the sisters are members of the aristocracy and surrounded at all times by servants, they have fallen on hard times and the rebellious Caroline has had to make an unhappy marriage to provide the family with an income. Charlotte, meanwhile, has been sent to the Weimar court where her Godmother (who is enjoying an affair with Goethe) is expected to make a similarly profitable match. Her failure to achieve this is a public humiliation from which the young girl never fully recovers.
Of the two, Caroline is fiery, and, it is hinted, mentally unstable, while Charlotte is more docile and reserved. Between both well-drawn characters, they can provide the youthful Schiller - who enjoys delicate health not to mention financial prospects - with everything he needs, and the sisters form a pact in which, to put it simplistically, Charlotte marries the poet and Caroline sleeps with him. Sex, of course, is the force which will bend the triangle all out of shape.
While the “story” framing Beloved Sisters doesn’t have much space to move - there are three corners after all, and by the end it’s bouncing off all of them in a repeat pattern. But where the affair runs out of steam, the film itself has come alive. Graf’s sense of period, the lighting, the interiors (rooms, carriages, courts), bucolic exteriors, are a pleasure which almost justify the extended running time. Baroque shots of both opulent and more cramped living quarters are framed obliquely, through half open doors, making the viewer a voyeur of this decaying society. Letters sally back and forth as the principals declaim their contents to the camera, breaking the fourth wall. The printing press - scene of Schiller’s first meeting with Charlotte - will burst the boundaries of the society against which all three strain.
A member of the “Berlin school”, Graf draws heavily of the talents of his leading actresses, Herzsprung and Confurius, who feed from his detailed screenplay to deliver nuanced and credible portrayals of characters from a far-gone era who might otherwise feel inaccessible. The focus is much less on Schiller, who remains at a slight remove although Stetter captures his delicacy well. Technical aspects are top-notch, from score to camera, costumes and flawless production design from Claus Jurgen Pfeiffer.
Production companies: Uschi Reich, Bavaria Filmverleih und Produktions
International sales: Global Screen, www.globalscreen.de
Producer: Uschi Reich
Executive producer Bernd Krause
Co-producers: Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Wolfgang Sturzl, Karl Blatz, Helge Sasse, Solveig Fina
Cinematography: Michael Wiesweg
Editor: Claudia Wolscht
Production designer Claus Jurgen Pfeiffer
Music: Sven Rossenbach, Florian Van Volxem
Main cast: Hannah Herzsprung, Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius, Claudia Messner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Maja Maranow, Anne Schafer, Andreas Pietschmann, Michael Wittenborn, Peter Schneider, Elisabeth Wasserscheid