Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern): Berlin Review

Senator Films
Berlin Film Festival
Two sisters, one writer, three hours of melodrama.

Dominik Graf's period romance stars Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius as sisters who both fall in love with German writer Friedrich Schiller, played by Florian Stetter.

The famous German poet, writer and dramatist Friedrich Schiller is given a tumultuous private life to rival any of his own Romantic writings in Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern), from veteran filmmaker Dominik Graf.

The historical record confirms that Schiller married Charlotte von Lengefeld and they had four children, but in Graf’s reimagining of events, the writer was really caught between Charlotte and her older sister, Caroline von Lengefeld, an unhappily married woman who wowed 18th-century German audiences with an initially anonymously published serial novel. The resulting menage a trois is the driving force behind this handsomely produced if occasionally rather old-fashioned feeling period drama, which plays like a soap opera in which the characters just happen to have better manners and finery.   

Like many expensive German period films, including Buddenbrooks from 2009 and 2010’s Henry of Navarre, Beloved Sisters was mounted as an "amphibian" project with both a theatrical release and a longer TV version in mind, which gives the filmmakers access to much-needed small-screen funding. The version shown in competition in Berlin is the 170-minute "festival version," though a 140-minute theatrical version, which will be released locally in July, and a 190-minute, two-part miniseries also exist.

The marriage of the pragmatic Caroline (Four Minutes star Hannah Herzsprung) to the "evil elephant" Von Beulwitz (Andreas Pietschmann) has saved the Von Lengefelds, petty nobles from Thuringia based in provincial Rudolstadt, from financial ruin after the early death of their paterfamilias. Caroline’s younger sister, Charlotte (Henriette Confurius), still needs to find a husband and is sent to stay with her godmother, Frau von Stein (Maja Maranow), a Lady of the Court in worldly Weimar and the mistress of Goethe, who’s gone on his Italian journey.

But instead of picking a future husband from a social circle above her own, Charlotte is charmed by Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter, from Sophie Scholl), a writer she meets when he asks her for directions. He’s had some success with his play The Robbers but is neither rich nor of noble birth, though he’s certainly valiant, as demonstrated by his decision to jump into the river to save a drowning child even though he can’t swim.

The sisters insist he get rid of his wet clothes and then warm him together in the sun. It’s here that Graf’s modus operandi comes into full view, as most contemporary films would have turned this scene, featuring a handsome and naked young man and the two lovely sisters with whom he’s about to embark on a lifelong menage a trois, into a frolicsome dejeuner sur l’herbe but Graf respects the mores of the time and instead zooms in -- quite literally, an affected gesture that serves little purpose other than making the film feel old-fashioned -- on the hands of the two sisters, which are simply tightly clenched in unity.  

Their secret pact to both love the same man equally is an unusual arrangement that’s further complicated not by Schiller, who’s delighted and not in the least flabbergasted, but by the fact Caroline is married and her family’s economic well-being is tied to her union. Always the pragmatist, she suggests Charlotte marries Schiller instead, so they can keep him close. Caroline does finally sleep with him one night, a discreetly filmed coupling that nonetheless oozes orgasmic bliss since the tension has been building for an hour before any kind of physical contact beyond a handshake actually occurs.

The film’s midsection, which takes place after the French Revolution has left France and especially its aristocracy in tatters, is set in the town of Jena, where Schiller finds a position as a university lecturer. The trio’s arrangement initially seems to suit all parties but when Charlotte confesses she’s never slept with her husband because she believes her sister deserves this privilege for having married a creep to save the family, Caroline packs her bags and leaves, saying their "stupid and cruel pact" is null and void. The women only start frequenting each other again several years later when Schiller and Charlotte have had a son and Caroline is about to divorce.

Though Schiller was a writer who tackled love, most notably in his Romeo and Juliet-like play Intrigue and Love, Graf, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps Schiller’s oeuvre almost entirely off-screen, simply presenting him as a sensitive human being who happens to be a writer. This focus on emotions turns the film into a relatively straightforward historical melodrama and means no knowledge of Schiller, Sturm und Drang or Weimar Classicism is required. However, this doesn’t mean characters don’t write; letters, rather than books and plays, are being written constantly and the director shows the protagonists reciting from their correspondence directly to the camera at regular intervals, another stylistically mannered decision that does, however, give audiences direct access to the characters’ emotions.

It is Caroline who finally emerges as the most fully rounded of the characters, as her dilemmas and sacrifices are the greatest and she’s got a talent for writing to rival Schiller’s own (his historically documented distaste for female writers is thankfully not glossed over here). Herzsprung makes Caroline a fiery character who has to face her own internal battles about what she wants and what she knows is right. When her character’s desire to write comes to the fore, Charlotte, played with conflicted vitality by Confurius, recedes into the background, a mother content to dote on her children, which is selling the character’s complex nature short and which makes the finale feel uneven.

As the man between the two, Stetter cuts a dashing figure but lacks the required innate intellectual rigor to make Schiller believable as a thinker, though he’s an improvement on Matthias Schweighoefer, who played the famous author as a young man in a 2005 TV film that was also produced by Uschi Reich.

Location work, production and costume design are all first-rate, while the score by Sven Rossenbach and Florian Van Volxem gets the job done.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Bavaria Filmverleih- und Produktions, WEGA Film Produktionsgesellschaft, WS Filmproduktion, Kiddinx Filmproduction, Senator Film Produktion, WDR, BR, Degeto, Arte, ORF
Cast: Hannah Herzsprung, Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius, Claudia Messner, Ronald Zehrfeld, Maja Maranow, Anne Schaefer,
Andreas Pietschmann, Michael Wittenborn, Peter Schneider, Elisabeth Wasserscheid
Writer-Director: Dominik Graf
Producer: Uschi Reich
Executive producer: Bern Krause
Director of photography: Michael Wiesweg
Production designer: Claus Juergen
Music: Sven Rossenbach, Florian Van Volxem
Costume designer: Barbara Grupp
Editor: Claudia Wolscht
Sales: Global Screen
No rating, 170 minutes.