Beloved Sisters

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday January 23, 2015

A scene from 'Beloved Sisters'
A scene from 'Beloved Sisters'  (Source:Bavaria Filmverleih- und Produktions GmbH)

Who knew? According to the film "Beloved Sisters," directed with minute attention to detail by Dominik Graf, the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller not only married Charlotte von Lengefeld, but also was more or less a husband to her older sister Caroline, as well.

The film all but confesses to being speculative in nature -- only one document relevant to the threesome survives, the wooden (and often extraneous) narration informs us -- but the very thought of such an arrangement in the late 1700s, and in German high society, carries an irresistibly juicy allure.

If only this movie knew how to squeeze that juice.

It's not that drama or sex are lacking; Schiller, played by the handsome Florian Stetter, is as charming as he is brilliant. His heart is as capacious as his mind, so it doesn't feel impossible or even unlikely that he might fall in love with two young women at once. Schiller himself embraces both his creative genius and his polyamorous ardor; writing to his editor from Weimar, where he's been exiled, he inquires, "Will you forgive me if a I return without any masterpieces, but with two flames in my heart?"

Ah, Weimar, scene of the crime of love. It's as though the film (and history) is leaning eagerly toward the inter-war period that finds Weimar take on a glow of sensual licentiousness, libidinousness both healthy and suspect. It's in Weimar that another exile also dwells: Charlotte von Lengefeld has been dispatched by her widowed mother to serve her godmother there, the idea being that she will find her way to court and, once there, secure her marriage to a suitably wealthy and prominent man, thereby lifting her family out of financial straits. Older sister Carline (Hannah Herzsprung) is already married to a well-off husband, and even though she's miserable in the marriage (to the point that Charlotte teases her with a tall tale about a society woman who fakes her own death in order to escape with a more exciting lover) she takes satisfaction in knowing that she's done her part to rescue her family.

But there's more going on between the sisters. It seems they have made a sacred pact -- at the base of a waterfall, and by the name of the river spirit, which surely makes this a sacred oath -- that they will remain forever foremost in one another's hearts. It's the young noblewoman's version of the "bros before hoes" code. Both sisters fall in love with Schiller; he returns the compliment; and for a while it seems that the sisters will be able to keep their pact, along with their man, living in an unorthodox (if sub rosa) domestic arrangement.

Why not? France is being ravaged by the revolution; if anyone's going to keep good Gallic traditions like the ménage à trois going, it might as well be the Germans. But jealousy and other complications rise, right along with Schiller's star, the young poet becoming a literary and academic success and, eventually, a privy counsellor. (His friendship with Goethe -- the lover of Charlotte's godmother, as it happens -- can only help him here; the film makes much... characteristically too much... of the first meeting between the men.) When Schiller gains a professorship, it means moving away and splitting up the arrangement, but the prospect of a reunion some distant day in Weimar beckons to all concerned.

"Beloved Sisters" feels like an especially sumptuous made-for-TV project that's been cut down from, say, six hours to its theatrical running time of three. It also feels like it should have been sheared a bit more -- to two hours max -- with more emphasis on clarity of action and plot. The film dwells on cute romantic trivia such as the three young lovers sending letters in code (with the girls' frantic mother, played by Claudia Messner in a performance that's stylistically far too modern, intercepting the missives), to an almost comical effect -- almost, that is, except that the tone remains relentlessly Germanic and stern. Even the parts that are meant to feel light and silly seem muted and too heavy.

The film's gorgeous cinematography and glossy production values are undercut by cartoonish titles and some inapt, 1970s-ish camerawork (Graf, for some reason, seems to favor the quick zoom-in). But the film's flaws aren't limited to its inconsistencies of manner; the material itself often feels misjudged, as in a dinner scene in which Schiller -- suffering from a toothache -- stands at the head of a table reading aloud his written description of how a victim of the Inquisition is marched to his doom. His audience munch away cheerfully, no one taken aback at the choice of dinnertime conversation.

Too formal, too, are the poses the actors assume -- before black backgrounds, as though they were speaking portraits -- during a montage that narrates a flurry of letters between the three. The posed narrations alternate with images of servants dashing around giddily, gloved hands, and mailbags tromped into the mud as torrential rains pour down. If we're meant to take an illicit thrill from this jumble, it doesn't work; if, however, we're meant to entertain a sharp skepticism about the wisdom or practicality of the ménage, this passage does the trick.

That said, however, the many facial moments scattered throughout the film (Schiller stepping off to receive a physical examination in the midst of what appears to be a faculty meeting, for example, with the meeting promptly invaded by the sisters; or, later on, a fragile truce between the sisters being shattered right along with dishes from their impoverished mother's service) act to dispel any notion of serious artistry. This is a film that would have benefited from being less glossy and more tawdry, intent as it seems to be on melodrama. Its entertainment value drowns in a three-hour narrative muddle even as its historical value never rises to the level of the credible.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.