NYFF 2014. Dominik Graf's "Beloved Sisters"

Dominik Graf has finally properly landed in America, and it’s about damn time.
Daniel Kasman

Dominik Graf has finally properly landed in America, and it's about damn time. The German director, known almost exclusively for a prodigious—and unexportable—output of work for television, has been directing since the 1970s, but only Beloved Sisters, one of this year's Berlinale competitors, has managed to secure proper theatrical distribution in the United States. I don’t know if the time is ripe or, more likely, if this is a mere fluke. Graf’s omnivorous ingestion of German social, political, cultural, and material histories and transformation of their tensions into deeply intelligent, supremely revealing genre dramas ipso facto must eventually create something international distributors think non-Germans might want to see. Then again, previous films by the director seemingly ripe or obvious for English-language audiences, including the Die Hard-like action-siege film Die Katze (1988, which was actually pathetically limitedly shown with an alternate soundtrack in the US), the zany post-Berlin Wall farce Spieler (1990), and Graf’s hobbled but still grandiose cop tragedy Die Sieger (1994), failed to get US distribution. For an overview of the wide-ranging, truly rich cinema of Dominik Graf, I will point you to my coverage of his 2012 retrospective at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which was a rare instance of being able to see many of his films with English subtitles. Luckily, some trifecta of marketable elements of Beloved Sisters means many will be able to see this sprawling, beautiful film in the US after its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Those conditions appear to be at the dignified yet racy overlap of “costume drama,” “historical romance,” and “a threesome”; but what an overlap and what a threesome! The “beloved sisters” of the title are the two sisters, Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld, whose glowing sensitivity, intelligence, and love-suffuse sisterly bond enfolds the young German poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) in a triangular romance whose radiance is as strong as it is precarious. At its full, two hour and fifty minute length, the film is a bristling epic, brilliantly told as a near epistolary saga: a film transformed into a vessel for letters to be written, sent, read, and responded to. It brazenly contradicts the modern assumption that pre-modern technology engendered slow, stolid communications; instead, energy exudes from its flurry of letter-writing. This energy resembles at times the fevered stylization of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence—zooms-in, dollies-out, swooping cameras, fragrant dissolves, inserts of period objects—prolonged and sustained for a length that bespeaks of Graf’s craftsman precision and tuning of pace through working in television’s confines. The zeal feels an extension of the era’s segue from Enlightenment wonder to Romantic emboldenment, the possibilities and terrors cresting over in nearby Revolutionary France, the constant necessary movement of people and letters across an un-unified Germany’s many provinces, and the shifting households required for an impoverished aristocratic class sliding down the economic ladder and even more destitute artists feverishly struggling to exist and to create. Above all, it’s driven by the passion of the private reverie between the two women and lone artist that they hope posits a new future for them all and, perhaps, in their idyllic relationship, for humankind.

Alas, whilst an object of supreme stability in geometry, the triangle in human relationships fares far worse. The pettiness of other people, contemporary society, and human emotions do not take long to intercede in the brief period of sublime togetherness the three have. Caroline, as embodied by a zealous, shockingly blue-eyed Hannah Herzsprung, is more wildly driven towards Schiller, and doesn’t hesitate to take their passion into a more earthly sphere. That energy is positioned against the self-sacrificing dutifulness of her past: Caroline's marriage to a wealthy aristocrat saved her widowed mother (a fantastically sly, modern performance by Claudia Messner) and younger sister from poverty. The more beautiful but acquiescent and unformed Charlotte (Henriette Confurius), unmarried and once-thwarted, must wed to secure her position. After much failure and dilly-dallying due to contempt for court superficialities, her mother’s revulsion against a union with an itinerant artist, and the young woman’s own fear of offending her older sister and upsetting the triangle, Charlotte weds Schiller. Jealousy enters into the threesome, as do children, permanent employment and some cultural recognition, divorce woes, Schiller’s own dalliances and poor health, and so on. All the while, Caroline puffs up with increasingly impassioned, borderline manic negative energy, channeled a great deal into a sensational novel she writes anonymously, mentored by Schiller. Charlotte settles down into a very quiet motherhood, starting the film as the socially itchy sister who noticed Schiller—and he her—and ending it nearly silent in the backroom with their children. Schiller, between the two, is a more amorphous and ambivalent figure whose reality is difficult to pin down but whose malleable existence and relationship with the sisters transforms all three for better and for worse.

These two seemingly nearly liberated women write (privately and professionally) and in so doing create a world for themselves out of this writing, battling what appears to be the quaking foundations of the social constraints and expectations of traditional marriage, the reliance on wedlock to provide for a household and secure family lines, and of the image of men as the true Romantics, the artists and creators.  The plot points when so enumerated do little to convey the form of Beloved Sisters, where the discreet and nuanced scenes aggregate, as is often the case in this director’s work, as the story gathers details and dramas and carries them along with us, growing in cresting power, a dense shared history of emotions, actions, and things. The epistolary nature of the film becomes analogous to the film’s approach to drama: various perspectives, detailed and accumulated. The rare solo screenplay from the very collaborative Graf communicates this partially true, partially imagined relationship (Caroline later wrote a biography of Schiller but her correspondence with him and the details of their relationship is missing) as up-to-the-cusp modern in its struggles for communication and feminism. If these women are seen as fore-bearers for modernity, so too is this “Germany”: the dashing travel of people and letters across the principalities suggests something larger and pre-national in the threesome’s foolhardy attempt to stay together. As in Graf’s other rare period film, 2007’s wonderful made-for-television 19th century religious drama Das Gelübde, the tensions of singular romantic relationships become partially analogous for broader contemporaneous cultural and national shifts.

Similarly common to films by this director, the mise en scène feels entirely constructed from authentic and lived material embodiment, including precise and beautifully photographed indoor and outdoor locations. Of special note is the focus on the use and innovation in printing techniques (to distribute Schiller’s work, Caroline’s serial novel, and, it is pointedly said, the pamphlets that helped spark the French Revolution), the penmanship of letters and their waxen seals—broken, unfolded and read—and the reliance on these modes of communication to transmit ideas, affect people, change lives and societies. (The excited advent of better printing and its hard, physical, replicable process, contrasts against the ineffable motions and ambiguities the three try to convey in their letters.) Each object seems at once wholly of use within the story and simultaneously a talisman of other meanings: a ring passed through generations, a dead father’s portrait, the much referenced but visually obscured figure of Goethe, a terrific number of candles, views out open windows, grand carriage traveling montages, and a family recipe for a witch’s brew-like punch. All carry so much meaning for us as well as for these characters, who see and use the objects as Graf sees and uses the characters, with belief, without guile, and in a way that makes them and the film speak at once of its humblest objects and ideas and then let’s us see them larger, and potentially with more mystery.

For Beloved Sisters is a period film that never once breaks the illusion of its genre-based dramatic romance—except, hilariously, in baldly tacky titles and title cards—for Graf is a filmmaker whose belief in the full expressiveness of popular cinematic languages and conventions is confirmed when you watch with what active intelligence his filmmaking is allowed to prickly explore, without rupture, the full range of his chosen story. Which is why, perhaps, Beloved Sisters has been picked up for release, and why it is Germany’s submission for the foreign language Oscar nomination. And why, too, it is a great introduction to a truly wonderful and woefully unknown director’s work; but in keeping with Graf’s genre and television roots, superficially seems not to stand out so much from surrounding prestigious costume dramas. A closer look assures it most certainly does, and it blossoms under such a gaze.

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