Unspeakable, by David Bax
Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters is a nearly three-hour long film about German aristocrat Charlotte von Lengefeld – who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and was married to the poet Freidrich Schiller – and her sister, the writer Caroline von Lengefeld. Now, if you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of another dry and stuffy late-year prestige picture, banish the thought and prepare to be humbled. Beloved Sisters is a lively, raw and, in many ways, thoroughly modern imagining of the Lengefeld sisters as early prototypes for a model of feminine autonomy that would still be challenging today.
Speculation about the marriage of Schiller and Charlotte has apparently roiled for some time, stemming from a line in one of the few extant pieces of Schiller’s correspondence that references both Caroline and a secret that he has kept for years. A common interpretation has been that there existed a love triangle involving the Lengefeld sisters at opposing corners, both recipients of Schiller’s affections. Graf’s more intriguing and fresher take posits that this was a mutual relationship in which Charlotte and Caroline’s sisterhood held primacy but both were freely in love with Schiller.
In a true case of content dictating form, Graf’s neoteric opining is accompanied by a number of off-kilter presentational choices. Michael Wiesweg’s restless camera zooms and pans unexpectedly, without any zany musical accompaniment. When music does come, it’s with stings accentuating moments that wouldn’t otherwise seem notable. Narration (apparently provided by the voice of Graf himself) flows with an urgent mumble reminiscent of the voiceover in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. All of this is accomplished using technological means that would have been available to filmmakers a half-century ago. This mix of classical and avant-garde is reflective of the characters themselves as well as their story.
Graf’s cast is equal to the challenge offered by his methodologies. Resisting at every turn the trappings of stodgy costume fare, the three leads turn in physical and sensuous performances. It’s as if we could reach into the room and touch them. Henriette Confurius is moving as Charlotte, the meeker sister. Florian Stetter strikes the perfect balance between Schiller’s confidence as a writer and his third wheel status at home. But the real standout is Hannah Herzsprung (seen somewhat recently in the Bryan Singer-produced web series H+) as Caroline, a woman who may have gotten more out of life than the average female of her time but, as Herzsprung plays her, yearned to be even more free and to fly even higher. The Caroline of the film has a sexual autonomy unencumbered by shame yet she still must publish her first novel anonymously for it to be taken as seriously as the work of a man. Even in Graf’s updated version of the time, Caroline is not satisfied with meager feints toward equality. In that, she is just like a modern-day woman. Herzsprung makes us realize that someone like Caroline would still be denied the full breadth of her expression in our time.
Beloved Sisters may be peppered with subtle anachronisms like the euphemism “period” to refer to menstruation or describing the end of a relationship by saying “I broke up with him,” but rather than being jarring, Graf’s aim is to bridge the viewer’s time to that of the film. In so doing, he has taken the seemingly moribund body of the literary biopic and made it vital.
After leaving a user review, I decided to read a real Film Reviewer’s take on “Beloved Sisters”. I was unaware that this film depicted characters who actually existed until reading David Bax’s review. I would agree with him that for the time period, these two sisters (especially Caroline) were way ahead of their time in terms of being fairly liberated women, albeit no further ahead than women are today (in terms of Caroline even if she lived today would not be given the full freedoms of expression she craved). However, I stand by my conclusion that with the cast he had, the director could and should have done a much better job of conveying the story, and at the same time edited it down significantly so it wasn’t such a snoozefest.