Beloved Sisters

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Beloved Sisters
"This sympathetic and thoughtful portrayal of the many faces of marriage avoids clichés about the good old days as well as the bad ones."

Dominik Graf's Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern) sharply re-invents the costume drama with an historical fiction centered around the ménage-à-trois love story between writer Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) and the sisters Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld. In a film that is vast in scope and deals with private emotions, he throws us into the turmoil of the family's undertakings and understandings, the salons of Weimar and the sounds of the late 18th century heard with the ears of today.

Carriages on country roads and cobblestones, the chirping of summer birds and busy crickets, wooden floors and delicate cups - the quotidian racket articulates physical reality captured in material, suspended over centuries in the creaking of the parquet flooring.

In 1787, Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius) is sent to Weimar by her widowed mother Louise (Claudia Messner) to stay with her godmother, Frau von Stein (Maja Maranow), who was madly in love and full of longing for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who at the time was off to Italy. Charlotte is designated to find a rich husband, as her older sister Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) did, who had married Friedrich von Beulwitz (Andreas Pietschmann) to help the family survive financially.

This sympathetic and thoughtful portrayal of the many faces of marriage avoids clichés about the good old days as well as the bad ones. Billy Wilder, in his interviews with Volker Schlöndorff, explained the practicality of the voice-over for filmmaking. Dominik Graf, who likes to speak the voice-overs in his films himself and does so here, seems to be on the same page. If it aids the storytelling, it can be a wonderful instrument.

There is entertainment and gossip in literary Weimar and a faked death with a doll in the coffin, which clearly adds "international flair."

The first meeting between Schiller, the notorious author who was banned from his home state for writing his scandalous play The Robbers, and Charlotte, happens over asking directions. Schiller draws a map in the dirt under her window, a playfully insouciant introduction, commented on by her godmother as being utterly inappropriate. The match with an English, [or was he Scottish?] captain who tries out his German with the word Gehölz, doesn't lead anywhere. "Charlotte doesn't know her market value," that she sells herself too cheaply is the verdict.

The initial encounter of the writer with the married Caroline takes place during his summer visit to Rudolstadt where he arrives a day early. In a fateful instant, mistaken identity turns into love at first sight. Caroline has a red ribbon or small kerchief around her neck - heads will roll. Though not yet and not those of our group. It is now 1788, and the revolution is but a year and a nation away. An impressive montage makes you think about what could have happened to our noble friends, had the waves of executions spread east.

The family mainly speaks French to avoid the servants understanding. During the summer the three beloved send handwritten notes to each other in code, several times a day. It is difficult not to think of today's fast and furious empty-minded text messaging and to make note of the difference in what's lacking in the methods of micro communication.

After an heroic rescue action of a little girl from the river Saale by the non-swimmer Schiller, Graf shows the two sisters warming up the shivering naked poet. Instead of going for a voyeuristic scene, the focus is on the sisters holding hands in the embrace. The moment is funny, a little awkward, and marvelously sincere.

Caroline's husband, who is described in the dimmest colors - their mother calls the son-in-law "an evil elephant," doesn't return to Rudolstadt for quite a while. His appearance and behavior are among the greatest revelations in Beloved Sisters. We are confronted with our own idea what a terrible husband looks like and better learn the lesson not to bet on hearsay. "It is important that there are obstacles," we hear in voice-over. "Great minds drain one's core," makes sense to those of us whose lover is an absent Goethe.

Schiller and his two "river goddesses," confront the conventions of their time that certain alignments are secretly permitted in arranged marriages. Caroline von Beulwitz has her first novel, Agnes von Lilien, published anonymously in Schiller's periodical Die Horen (in installments from 1796 to 1797). The development of the printing press changes the dynamics of writing. Dressed as boys to listen to the husband, respectively brother-in-law's, inauguration lecture at Jena University, Caroline and Charlotte in their fictionalised shape, remind the spectator how far we've come.

The social issues exposed in Beloved Sisters never become a history lesson, academic pamphlet, or worst of all, a stodgy staged reenactment of the life and times of a German genius and his devoted family. A cousin who returns from witnessing the every-day horrors of the Revolution in France is just as much in need of comfort from Caroline as she is of his kindness. Wilhelm von Wolzogen is played by Ronald Zehrfeld, who portrayed the policeman, moonlighting as a furry, in Frauke Finsterwalder's Finsterworld. Centuries apart, the casting makes time disappear in an encompassing longing to connect. Weimar then and Weimar now are clearly not the same and the inheritance of the soul is a bricolage anchored in the solid world around us.

Did you ever think about the dangers of using candles to light your stagecoach? Can you imagine the amusement of classic charades including one of Medea killing her children?

Full of surprises, Beloved Sisters is Germany's noteworthy Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2014
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Two sisters both fall for the same man - poet Friedrich Schiller.

Read more Beloved Sisters reviews:

Robert Munro ***1/2


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