It’s tempting to take issue with the way Beloved Sisters, a sumptuous and sprawling costume drama, narrows its portrayal of German author and philosopher Friedrich Schiller to his rather unorthodox love life. The tale of the ménage à trois the post-Enlightenment luminary engaged in with aristocratic sisters Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld over the course of two decades screams cinema of quality, but it transcends its Masterpiece Theater trappings by placing this romantic triangle in the context of the social upheavals taking place in Europe at the end of the 18th century.
In fact, as the movie opens with an onslaught of exposition-heavy voiceover narration, this isn’t even Schiller’s story, at least not at first. In the spring of 1788, virginal, doe-eyed Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) is sent by her widowed mom to stay with the girl’s godmother in the hopes of nabbing a wealthy husband. The debutante, however, made a vow to older sis Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) not to follow in her footsteps and /instead/ choose to marry for love, not money, a choice the elder sibling made to retain the family’s social standing after their father’s sudden death but which has also left her emotionally unfulfilled.
Charlotte, nicknamed Lollo, keeps turning down suitors, at least until she helps out a stranger asking for directions in the street. The lost out-of-towner turns out to be Schiller (Florian Stetter), and even though the scrawny scribe isn’t much to look at, what with his shabby clothes and thin frame, something about his confident demeanor and sex appeal piques the young woman’s interest, and as it later turns out, her sister’s as well. Literary notoriety has not translated into financial solvency for the budding poet and playwright, but even without wealth or nobility, his passionate espousal of revolutionary ideas seduces Caroline, who recognizes a fellow intellectual in Schiller and becomes convinced that sharing this man with her sister will bring happiness to all three of them, societal mores be damned.
The trio’s bond strengthens even as the women’s mother (Claudia Messner), a kindred spirit to Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet, cautions Lollo that Schiller’s empty wallet means marriage is out of the question. Actually, much of Beloved Sisters, which was Germany’s 2014 submission for the Foreign Language Feature Oscar, suggests what Franco Zeffirelli would have done if he’d been given a chance to adapt a Jane Austen novel for the screen. Writer-director Dominik Graf’s obsessive attention to period detail also recalls the visual splendor of Luchino Visconti, the aesthetic richness of Merchant Ivory and, in its candlelit nighttime sequences, the atmospheric tactility of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. In a nifty stylistic flourish, the filmmaker has the actors reciting letters they wrote one another while looking directly at the camera, bringing to mind The Age of Innocence.
What hampers this defiantly sudsy love story is a bulky narrative, particularly in the first half of this nearly three-hour opus. Graf, a TV vet making his first theatrical feature in eight years, aims for novelistic density, which lends the movie texture but also weighs it down, suggesting that the material would have probably been better served as a miniseries. Beloved Sisters crams in so much content, actually, that it occasionally becomes difficult to keep up with the lengthy subtitles. Be prepared for some fast reading.
The film’s virtues, however, considerably outweigh its shortcomings, and once Graf moves beyond Schiller’s extended courtship of the von Lengefeld sisters and places the three of them under the same roof, the evolving dynamics of their relationship make for engrossing viewing. For if there’s anything Beloved Sisters, at once unwieldy and absorbing, manages to convey is that the most turbulent social struggles cannot be separated from those battles waged in the bedroom.
Cast: Hannah Herzsprung, Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius, Claudia Messner, Ronald Zehrfeld.
Writer-director: Dominik Graf.
A Music Box Films release. Running time: 171 minutes. In German and English with English subtitles. Sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes, disturbing images. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale.