(Beloved Sisters, “Die geliebten Schwestern“, Dominik Graf, 2014)
In settling in to watch a three-hour period drama about German philosopher and writer Frederich Schiller’s 20-year menage a trois relationship with two sisters Charlotte von Lengefeld (whom he married) and Caroline von Beulwitz (who eventually become his biographer), you could reasonably expect one of two scenarios. Either a staid, starchy costume drama, humourless and ossified, or a glorified bodice ripper, replete with heaving bosoms and clandestine tumbles. What a delight, then, that Beloved Sisters is neither, instead a handsomely mounted, literate and literary, deeply human tale of love’s many transmutations set against a backdrop of societal change and technological progress. (Not that there is anything wrong with a good Masterpiece Theatre or a saucy bodice ripper, mind. Stiff upper lips are entertaining, as are titillating tits).
Following the sudden death of their father, the two von Lengefeld sisters find their bourgeois existence threatened by (comparative) penury. Caroline agrees to a marriage of convenience in order to improve her family situation, determined not to let it ruin her happiness. Charlotte, meanwhile, meets the young Schiller and is immediately smitten. When Schiller and the sisters summer together (Caroline’s husband away on business), they form an intense, private bond, fuelled by declarative correspondence and languid pastoral picnicking. The two girls vow solemnly to share Schiller equally. While Caroline and Schiller’s connection seems more direct and passionate, a true meeting of the minds, there is a chaste, courtly devotion between Charlotte and Schiller. With the inconvenience of Caroline’s husband, it is decided Charlotte and Schiller shall be wed, a decision Caroline and Schiller mark by feverishly making love. Over the next two decades, the sisters’ comfort with their pact ebbs and flows, each vacillating between self-sacrifice and selfishness.
Caroline, portrayed with lusty yen by Hannah Herzsprung, is more passionate, promiscuous, and seemingly brighter than her gentle sister, and thus more immediately fascinating. Charlotte, by contrast, maintains the quiet intrigue of one who never quite says how they feel or pursues what they want, and Henriette Confurius’ performance is passive while never simpering. She seems heartbreakingly aware she’s not as vibrant as her sister or as brilliant as Schiller (If she ever had the inclination, Confurius would make an excellent May Welland in a production of The Age of Innocence – she does a good line in romantic resignation).
As their joint paramour, Schiller (Florian Stetter, marvellous) is a similarly nuanced character. He seems romantic, earnest, and decent – yet there are flickers of a more mercenary man there – a poet who is aware his fortune will increase by marrying, a swordsman who has enjoyed a fair bit of time romping with local ladies of ill-repute and now seems to want to have his sororial cake and eat it too.
All this romantic to-ing and fro-ing plays out a background of a society in flux, as the German bourgeois watch France erupt into bloody revolution with studied concern of its implications for Germany. This sharply observed sociopolitical context prevents the film from ever feeling like a chamber drama. A goodly amount of social philosophy and poetry also lends proceedings a luxuriantly intelligent air.
This is a resolutely speculative account: there’s no mention of these goings on in von Beulitz’ biography, although the knowledge that she burnt almost all of her correspondence with Schiller shortly before her death has fuelled the imagination of literary historians’ sexual conspiracy theories. If its not how things actually happened though, than it should have been: this is a full-throated cry of a movie, brilliantly entertaining and narratively complex.