Whether intentionally or not, German director Dominik Graf has invented a new kind of biopic that can only be described as an epistolary movie. It is an experiment best not repeated.
Admittedly, making a film about a poet, writer, dramatist, or philosopher — and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) was all of those — has defeated many great directors (perhaps the best attempt is Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” about Keats). How to present in a two-dimensional medium the inner workings of a brilliant mind? Especially a star of the German Enlightenment and pioneer of Romanticism like Schiller, whose exultant “Ode to Joy” bursts out in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and who revolutionized aesthetics in treatises such as “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”?
Best to dump the deep thoughts and focus on the heavy breathing. Instead of the art and lofty ideals (though they are rendered at times in gushy platitudes), Graf focuses on Schiller (Florian Stetter) in a speculated love triangle with the sisters Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herszsprung), the latter in a marriage of convenience to a boorish duke whose wealth allows the down-on-their-luck von Lengefelds to continue living in the manner to which they were accustomed. Schiller marries Charlotte, but the three in this version form an off-and-on
bohemian ménage à trois reminiscent of the shenanigans of Byron and Shelley. That is, until Caroline gets the idea that she can be a writer, too. In short, a perfect subject for the besotted extravagances of the late Ken Russell.
Graf, however, chooses to depict this affair 18th-century style, drawing on landscape painting, ecstatic flashbacks, incessant voiceover narration and letters.
Lots of letters. Letters we see written and then read aloud by the writer and answered by the recipient who writes a letter in reply and also recites it. Shots of the letter writer reading aloud the letter superimposed over him or her writing the letter. And sometimes just the letter writer reading directly to the camera, or to the recipient, the letter he or she has written. And just when you think something interesting is developing in a scene, it is described in a letter, which appears in superimposition and is read in voiceover. Or some guy in a wig and knee-breeches breathlessly bursts in just as things are getting interesting and delivers another letter. Apparently the ink pot and quill pen were the iPhones of the era, detaching people from their experience by the compulsion to communicate it.
Graf has more success when it comes to landscapes and other painterly effects. Cinematographer Michael Wiesweg probably checked out the works of Caspar David Friedrich, whose canvases inform much of the stunning imagery. And the many shots of the sickly Schiller sprawled on a divan after an exhausting bout of letter writing resemble variations of Henry Wallis’s painting “The Death of Chatterton.” If nothing else, “Beloved Sisters” is one of the most visually striking biopics around. Too bad you have to wade through so much verbiage in order to enjoy it.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.