Beloved Sisters: an attempt at “grafology”
by Bénédicte Prot
- In this film based on an epistolary double declaration of love written by Friedrich Schiller, Dominik Graf presents an imagining of the incredible love triangle that was formed between the author and the two sisters to whom the letter was addressed
In Beloved Sisters [+see also:
interview: Dominik Graf
film profile], which is in competition in Berlin, the Munich-based filmmaker and television director Dominik Graf (who recently contributed to the Dreileben trilogy) spends 170 minutes telling a story in the form of a biographical fiction based on a letter written by the German author Friedrich Schiller (played by Florian Stetter). It is the tale of the love triangle that he created from 1788 onwards with Charlotte von Lengefeld (who eventually became his wife) and her sister Caroline, played by Henriette Confurius and the former Shooting Star Hannah Herzsprung, respectively.
While France is experiencing a revolution, the viewer is introduced to the bucolic world of an increasingly impoverished nobility, which gives just as much importance to marriages of convenience as it does to supporting scholars and which, between those two extremes, witnesses how its traditions are gradually evolving into a certain type of romantic liberalism. The “place” of women in particular is becoming more modern: as soon as he has come out of his fiery and adulterous relationship with Charlotte von Kalb, the young Schiller, having already won much praise for his play The Robbers, steps into the very feminine world of the Von Lengefeld sisters and their mother. The latter is now a widow very much set in her ways (she only speaks to her daughters in French and concerns herself with money issues) but is not unfamiliar with her emotions. The three women, who are very affectionate and attached to each other, have even decided to make a pact, which is amended as Caroline (also known as Line), who is married to a man she detests simply for his money (and in order that Charlotte, nicknamed Lolo, doesn't fall into the same trap), backtracks on her sacrifice so that she, too, can take advantage of Schiller's love.
For two-thirds of the film, Line and Lolo seem totally at ease with this love affair that starts off as a perfect triangle (Schiller even finds a way to write to both of them at the same time, with a quill in each hand), which leads to an incredible childbirth scene in which one of the sisters lies on the other one's stomach while she brings her child into the world. However, the alternating that is eventually required, emphasised by the pendulous movement of the correspondence throughout the tale, ends up causing resentment and disappointment. Indeed, the idealised love that unfolds before the viewer's eyes is fundamentally presented as something to strive for, a reality that won't really take shape until later on ("When we are in Weimar...", the characters repeat over and over again); in other words, it is a fiction fed by the quill.
Although over its run time of three hours Beloved Sisters does not do anything in particular to reinvent the period fictional biography genre, it does have some interesting features – above all, the importance given to text itself: beyond the epistolary origins that largely shape the story (reading features heavily, either on-screen or via voice-over, as do the characters' exchanging of letters and the recurring image of the quill dancing gracefully over the paper), there are also quite a lot of coded messages about the advances in the printing industry – which lead Schiller to dream of a future in which everyone will have access to books – and about the popularity of serialised novels. Perhaps the latter idea was what Graf was looking to adopt when he made this long feature.
(Translated from French)