Beloved Sisters, Germany’s official submission to the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category, is a beautifully photographed historical drama patiently chronicling a love triangle between two aristocratic sisters and their poet-playwright-philosopher lover, Friedrich Schiller. With such a salacious story at its core, it would be easy to dismiss as another bodice-ripping romance in the same vein as Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont or Dangerous Beauty. Instead, the film—as helmed by veteran German TV and film writer-director Dominik Graf—is a heady examination of modern notions of love and societal gender roles. Although Beloved Sisters does dabble occasionally in melodrama throughout its unhurried 170 minutes, Graf keeps the focus on mental and creative attraction rather than simply emphasizing all the sex.
Set on the cusp of both the Weimar Classicism literary movement and the French Revolution, Beloved Sisters posits a world in the midst of a socio-political sea change. The young, naive Charlotte (Henriette Confurius), nicknamed “Lollo” by her family, is shuttled to Weimar, where her godmother (Maja Maranow) will mentor her in finding a husband. While in the city, Lollo makes the acquaintance of Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), a smart, dashing pauper-playwright who’s already achieved a modicum of fame. While the attraction is instant, there’s one thing that Schiller lacks as a proper match: money.
Lollo’s aristocratic family is on the edge of ruin, precipitated by the untimely death of its patriarch. Her sister Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) has played her part, attempting to stabilize their financial situation by marrying Baron von Beulwitz, at 16—obviously for his money. Now, during the summer of 1788, when Schiller visits the von Lengefelds at their home in Rudolstadt, the sisters’ mother (Claudia Messner) isn’t keen on Lollo marrying a poor writer, nor does she much like of the odd relationship developing between her daughters and their guest.
The trio grows intimately close during this slow, languid summer in the country. They craft a secret written language to convey their innermost thoughts and feelings without reprisal from those who may intercept the letters and disapprove of their bonding. The missives between Lollo, Caroline and Schiller are filled with pledges to love each other forever—equally and unconditionally. When read aloud by Stetter, Herzsprung and Confurius, the passion is convincing.
It’s also at Rudolstadt that Beloved Sisters takes a misstep into Harlequin territory. Schiller, who can’t swim, saves a little girl from drowning. Afterwards, Caroline insists that Schiller strip naked to dry his clothes, and the sisters keep him warm, covering him with their clothed bodies as together they lay against a tree, warming in the sun. The scene is but one cheesy example; eye-rolling moments abound, particularly the cursory visual treatment of the French Revolution, in which blood slowly seeps down a cobblestone road, which feels like Graf just read A Tale of Two Cities and lifted one of its defining images wholesale.
Lollo and Schiller eventually marry when he scores a prestigious professorship, and Beloved Sisters posits that the marriage served to cover up their taboo ménage à trois. It also not-so-subtly suggests that their utopian existence is unsustainable, because jealousy and human nature will always get in the way of the happily ever after. It’s not until the film’s final act when more interesting plot points unfold, and the most riveting character finally emerges; that some of the more vibrant and vital scenes in the film, which capture the complexity of the trio’s time together, are rushed makes for a jarring contrast with the slow-burning build-up of the film’s central relationship.
Scholars continue to debate the extent of the relationships between Schiller, von Lengefeld and older sister von Beulwitz, who would go on to write Schiller’s biography 17 years after his death. Graf’s film assumes an intimacy with Schiller and each of the sisters as suggested by their surviving letters, so the director takes artistic license with their private lives as well as their political and literary inclinations.
Yet the varying historical accuracy of the film is far from its most salient fault. Its uneven pacing is not only offputting, it prevents a satisfactory delving into Caroline’s psyche just as she develops into the film’s most dynamic character. In addition to thumbing her nose at societal norms—eventually divorcing her husband and taking on several lovers—she proves herself to be a talented writer in her own right. With Schiller’s mentoring, she publishes her first novel, Agnes von Lilien, anonymously in serialized installments. The novel becomes a sensation and Caroline solidifies her position as the better match for Schiller, intellectually and intimately. In turn, the deferential Lollo is largely relegated to the background, never fully fleshed out.
To the film’s credit, cinematographer Michael Wiesweg takes full advantage of Graf’s turtle-quick narrative structure to stunningly highlight German countrysides (modern-day Rudolstadt), lending the landscapes a timeless feel. This helps: those who do take on Beloved Sisters’ nearly three-hour running time and somnambulant appeal will discover a surprisingly modern story of women who dared to flaunt convention and approach love, marriage and society on their own terms.
Director: Dominik Graf
Writer: Dominik Graf
Starring: Henriette Confurius, Florian Stetter, Hannah Herzsprung
Release Date: Jan. 9th, 2014 (NY and LA)
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.