“Beloved Sisters,” Germany’s entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is almost three hours long. It has a wild premise, that the poet Friedrich von Schiller (the author of the words to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and the namesake of Buffalo’s Schiller Park) spent most of his life in a three-way romance with two beautiful sisters, Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld.
Outrageous as it is, “Beloved Sisters” is weirdly compelling. It could be that the movie is so beautiful.
Historic dramas are big, slow targets and a few reviews I peeked at are slamming this film as a “costume drama.” It is better than that. This movie is drenched in beauty, and not of the kitschy TV variety.
It captures the quiet of the 18th century, before boom cars or sound systems. Several times I wished I could stop the movie just to admire it. One scene, for instance, has Charlotte, Caroline, their mother, Schiller and assorted servants picnicking by the burned-out ruins of the family’s abandoned villa. The light changes gradually as night falls, until finally the family is sipping wine by candlelight, to the chirping of crickets. It’s breathtaking.
There is no excuse for a movie being almost three hours long – unless it is “Gone With the Wind.” Still, this movie’s length could work in its favor. You get hypnotized by the beauty, by the tall ceilings, misty gardens and roaring rivers. And so you begin buying into the story.
It takes work to get into it. The start of the film is kind of awkward, with a lot of details thrown at you very quickly. The actresses playing the sisters (Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius) are excellent, but they look somewhat alike, and I kept mixing them up. It doesn’t help that your eyes keep having to go to the subtitles, a recurring problem throughout the movie.
Once you get your bearings, though, you can’t look away. It’s not only arresting to look at, it’s a tremendous yarn, two girls falling in love with this tempestuous, romantic poet. “I love you both,” Schiller tells them. “Caroline and Charlotte, I love you both.”
Schiller is a dream of a bohemian, a skinny charmer who lives in a picturesque series of garrets and isn’t above bedding a patron’s wife. But you sense his joy in his writing and – especially in one glorious scene – his teaching. Movies about artists usually can’t capture genius, and “Beloved Sisters” does better than most.
A surprisingly compelling character emerges in the girls’ widowed mother (Claudia Messner). She can be gruff and manipulative as she tries to marry her daughters off to keep the family afloat. But at the end of this tangled drama, she was the one who loved the best. She was the wisest among all the characters.
Other German poets make cameo appearances. Goethe shows up, and it’s cute how you never get a good look at him. So does Körner, whom a classical music nerd like me will recognize as the author of the words to Schumann’s beautiful “Körner Lieder.” (For fans of German lieder, the movie takes on a new dimension. You know these guys. You know their work.)
Like “Bright Star,” the 2009 movie about British poet John Keats, “Beloved Sisters” puts you into a different time zone, the unhurried era of the 18th century. But in some ways the movie is too ambitious for its own good.
Some things were confusing. Other things could have been edited. Childbirth and sex scenes are too graphic. (This movie isn’t for kids.) And while I loved the leisurely scenes of lovely handwriting, we didn’t need all those scenes of the burgeoning printing industry. The printing business leads to a lengthy exploration of the horrors of the French Revolution, which in turn is likened, unfairly, to the Inquisition. No one who brings up the Inquisition ever knows the first thing about it.
Speaking of religion, cursory research into Schiller reveals that he grew up in a very religious home and had considered becoming a clergyman. He wrote tragedies about Mary Stuart and Joan of Arc. If the rumors of this twisted three-way romance are true – and they have swirled for years – it was a much more complicated situation than could be dealt with on screen, even over the course of three hours.
The best thing to do, then, seems to be to take “Beloved Sisters” as fiction, and hope that too many people do not accept it as fact.
Enjoy it for what it offers – poetic license.
Starring: Hannah Herzsprung, Henriette Confurius, Florian Stetter
Director: Dominik Graf
Running time: 170 minutes
Rating: Unrated, but R equivalent for sexual situations and brief nudity. In German and French with subtitles.
The Lowdown: The story of poet Friedrich von Schiller’s romance with two beautiful sisters.