In the initial design for the German poster of Beloved Sisters, Florian Stetter as Friedrich Schiller stands in the foreground, deep in thought, while in the background, in a sunlit meadow, Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung as the sisters Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld, are presented as a pair of giggling girls whispering excitedly about matters of the heart.
Dominik Graf was unhappy with this design, and rightly so: Beloved Sisters is most definitely not a film in which the 18th-century writer-revolutionary took time out from permanently changing the way Germans saw themselves for a couple of amorous dalliances. Graf had no intention of indulging a cult of genius or relegating love to the realm of passing fancy. That said, it’s hard to imagine a poster that would do justice to Beloved Sisters, a film that deals with a lifestyle that our culture mainly conceives of in clichés: love nurtured and shared among three people.
Over the course of almost three hours, Graf recounts the efforts of Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters to maintain the romantic love kindled during the summer they spend together not far from Weimar, the intellectual center of a country not yet born. The trio’s desire for a different form of happiness is a perfect reflection of an era in which the old world of small feudal fiefdoms was not yet dead and the dream of a federal nation-state was on the way to becoming a reality—an in-between moment of seemingly unlimited possibilities.
When the three first meet, they’re all in one way or another living in worlds to which they don’t quite belong: Charlotte has been sent to Weimar by her mother to stay with a wealthy relative in hopes of attracting a suitable (read: rich) husband; Schiller is similarly an exile, banned from his native Duchy of Württemberg for political reasons; while Caroline lives unhappily with her husband Friedrich von Beulwitz in a marriage of convenience, brokered in order to save her family from poverty. Schiller himself is no stranger to arrangements of this type: he receives a stipend from socialite Charlotte von Kalb so that he can write in peace—and pleasure her whenever she feels like it. That’s the aristocratic way of managing marriage, sex, and affections: compartmentalized and not necessarily forming a whole.
It is precisely this unification that Schiller, Charlotte, and Caroline attempt, maintaining their romantic love while making room for social obligations and conventions. Despite impasses, detours, and even the seemingly insuperable estrangement of Charlotte and Caroline, they still manage to honor their commitment to each other.
If for Graf, the trio’s attempts at finding a structure to house the many aspects of love and passion recall the ideals and alternative lifestyles of the Seventies, that extraordinarily contradictory period also engendered a cosmopolitan cinematic modernism that is echoed in his treatment of the material. The key points of reference are Truffaut’s Two English Girls, Rohmer’s German-language The Marquise of O, and Wajda’s The Maids of Wilko as well as less well-known films such as Klaus Kirschner’s 1976 Mozart: Recordings of a Youth and Michael Hild’s 1978 Tagebuch des Verführers, both of which informed Graf’s approach to period detail and the era’s fundamentally different sense of time and space.
Beloved Sisters moves at an almost breathless clip, without ever violating its characters’ slow sense of time, which is defined by horse-drawn coaches and posted letters. And in spatial terms, in the first half Graf stresses a certain flatness (derived from period paintings) by panning along walls or arranging groups of people in such a way that the overall composition works for width. However in the second half, with its psychodrama-like scenes of domestic turmoil and paranoia, compositional depth becomes more important—as if an abyss has opened, calling to the characters, trying to lure them in with promises of the peace and quiet that come with conventional living. Though the film’s characters may be tempted, in the end they remain steadfast, setting an example for how we should try to live our lives.