If your love is split between more than one person, can you ever really call it true love? This is the essential question invoked in German director Dominik Graf’s “Beloved Sisters.” The romance explores the private life of famous German poet, writer and dramatist Friedrich Schiller and his enduring love triangle with the von Lengefeld sisters.
At first, the romance in the story mimics the kind of budding love scene in “Romeo and Juliet.” Charlotte von Lengefeld (Hannah Herzsprung) first sees the young and handsome poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) through her window on a hot summer afternoon. Graf crafts this seen in a romanticized light, playing on the beauty of the period and its traditional courtship culture to set up the audience’s expectations. Yet anybody familiar with the historically-based backstory of these characters will know that Graf is just as ready to tear those predictions down, making way for an ever-juicier love story with a complex sibling twist.
A three-way romance that includes your sister and a man you love would be a fascinating topic of discussion in any day and age. With such steamy material to pull from, Graf would have had an easy time pulling out content that could keep his audiences entertained for hours. Yet in dealing with this eccentric me`nage a trois, Graf does justice to this tragically experimental lifestyle by refusing to water down the many cultural aspects that surround and confine it. The characters are developed through their interactions with the traditional social world around them, and it is hardly ever a smooth encounter. Today we view ourselves as one of the most liberal periods in history, yet many of us would still be quick to negatively judge this unconventional romance. This gives “Beloved Sisters” its instant hook as audiences watch how the sisters’ paths, interwoven with Schiller’s, play out in their real world of structure and tradition.
Charlotte’s sister Caroline (Henriette Confurius) is engaged to a prominent noble to save the family from financial ruin. While Charlotte is supposed to marry someone from a social circle above her own, she soon marries Schiller. The von Lengefeld sisters sacrifice for each other to sustain this atypical relationship in secret while simultaneously trying to conform to their bourgeois lifestyles on the surface.
The almost three-hour quest for the sustainable (and almost never attainable) love triangle relationship is done with grace and subtlety. Director Graf’s stylistic mise-en-scene, the saturated color, and the serene score combine to depict a tranquil and alluring image of bucolic scenery of 18th century Germany. The simple life portrayed through this cinematography contrasts the intricacies of the movies plot. Middleclass life during the period was troubled by a delicate balance of affairs, marriages, class and money, and these problems are only magnified for the three main characters.
For the majority of the film, Graf seems to narrate the complexity of this love affair with reserved judgment; the story unfolds in a matter-of-fact manner. He treats moments of passion and success equally to moments of jealousy and sadness, creating a well-rounded picture of how this love story could have really played out if it were seen from such a close distance.
This equal treatment of love and loss makes the spiraling downfall of each of the characters all the more poignant toward the end of the movie. Graf refrained from making earlier scenes overly dramatic, and this tactic works well. Throughout the film, the sisters’ emotions are quietly churning and slowly bubbling to the surface, and for a time they are suppressed by personal strength and the ingrained rituals of the bourgeoisie. But at last, their crumbling social and economic situation climaxes in a painful rupture of the sisters’ love and respect for each other as well as for Schiller.
From the get-go, the ultimate demise of this romance seemed inevitable, but the nuanced performances of Herzsprung, Stetter and Confurious make it just as painful to watch as their once-dynamic relationships stagnate and tear each other apart.
Throughout “Beloved Sisters,” Graf slowly upped the doses of sentiment and resentment until it was too great a weight to bear. While the love story of Schiller and the von Lengefeld sisters is fascinating in its own right, Graf’s carefully timed scenes and mesmerizing use of the time period’s setting makes this a film to be studied in its entirety for all of its overlapping elements.