Voice-over narration in the movies is a crutch, rarely used by anyone with the skill to use the visual medium to tell the story with pictures, as film was meant to do. But you can almost excuse the maddening fill-in-between-the-pictures narration of the lengthy German bio-pic “Beloved Sisters.”
It’s a story of some importance and complexity, of the love triangle that entangled the great German poet/historian Friedrich Schiller and two sisters. The scandalous epic, set during the romanticism that swept across Europe and eventually led to the French Revolution, could have been a German “Doctor Zhivago.” It certainly has the length to justify that comparison.
But it’s something of a stiff, partly because of a somewhat less than charismatic lead, but mostly due to the droning narration, which gives “Beloved Sisters” the tone of a German history lecture, delivered in the original German.
Charlotte and Caroline von Lengefeld were German versions of Jane Austen heroines, cash-poor, needing to marry to preserve their widowed mother’s genteel life. Then, they meet young, dashing and headstrong Schiller, a struggling poet who might make them forget their fiscal matrimonial duties for a life of passion. Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) does her familial duty and marries into the lesser nobility. But she holds the more impressionable younger sister Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) to the “secret oath” they took in girlhood — no sister must ever leave the other sister alone in the world. So they share Schiller’s attentions.
Schiller (Florian Stetter) — fancies them both, the worldly (and more sexual) Caroline a bit more.
At a pivotal moment, he leaps into a raging river to rescue a drowning child even though he cannot swim, the siblings team up to nurse him and arrive at a pact. Charlotte will marry Schiller, thanks to Caroline’s match-making. And Caroline, an apsiring writer herself, will continue to enjoy Schiller’s romantic attentions, using younger sister as cover to keep Caroline’s husband from suspecting infidelity.
It’s the late 18th century, and the revolutions in thought that the Age of Enlightenment have spawned revolutions in literature, science, historical research and printing, where mass dissemination of these new ideas have made Schiller celebrated, if not rich. As the French Revolution boils over abroad, in Germany the nobility quivers in fear and tries to suppress romantics like Schiller and the women who love him.
Another character describes Schiller as “a young man driven by excessive ardor,” and while there is evidence of his womanizing and his impulsiveness, Stetter plays the fellow as a somewhat passive passionate poet — a tad too Ashley Wilkes for the women’s Rhett Butler reaction to him.
The two female leads only manage the occasional moment of obvious lust or love, robbing this entire affair of much of what would label it as “torrid.”
But writer-director Dominik Graf does well by the dry, Austen-eque touches, the way Charlotte is chastised and instructed by her noblewoman employer (Maja Maranow) for “not knowing her market value.” Her line about courting the “right” sort of fellow is more frank than Austen, but almost as funny as the English writer would have put it.
“Never dally at with a man at the back door when another is waiting at the front.”
And Graf does a splendid job of staging the famous meeting between Schiller and the elder statesman of German literature, Goethe, an event captured in a long shot — buzzing busybodies staring at the two of them across the river, gossiping and trying to read their lips with spyglasses as the two giants of German letters (Goethe, reverently, is never shown) stood and chatted, awkwardly, at a distance better suited for duel-by-pistol.
But this mini-series length film, in two parts (in German and French with English subtitles), never works up a romantic head of steam, never captures the frisson and ferment of a tumultuous age. And, thanks to the flat depiction of Schiller, “Beloved Sisters” never overcomes the feeling that it’s a lecture, with a little rough and ready German sex tossed in, here and there, to wake up the class.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with somewhat graphic sexual situations
Cast: Hannah Herzsprung, Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius
Credits: Written and directed by Dominik Graf. A Music Box release.
Running time: 2:50