German Cinema

Turning History into Art, Film Brings Schiller’s Love Triangle to Life

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"Beloved Sisters" star's Florian Stetter as German poet Friedrich Schiller. Source: DPA

There was a brief entry that stated it clearly: It’s true – she did sleep with him. Caroline von Beulwitz went to bed with Friedrich Schiller, famed German playwright, philosopher and poet, author of “The Robbers,” a contemporary of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and husband of Caroline’s younger sister, Charlotte.

This little-known fact was noted long after the three protagonists had passed away, recorded in the notebook of German biographer and diplomat Karl August Varnhagen von Enseon April 9, 1847.

Friedrich Schiller and the two sisters he loved, who loved him, and who loved each other. One of them was Caroline, who married into the von Beulwitz name, remarried in 1795 and became von Wolzogen. She was the mother of one child out of wedlock – possibly Friedrich Schiller’s. The other was Charlotte Schiller, who married the poet in 1790 and was the mother of their four children.

The love triangle, which began in the summer of 1788 in Rudolstadt, an east German city on the banks of the River Saale, is the subject of Dominik Graf’s new film “Beloved Sisters,” the most captivating film to come out of Germany this summer.

What really happened in this famous ménage-a-trois isn’t really Mr. Graf’s concern. The director, who is best known in Germany for his work on police thrillers for film and television, never intended to direct a historical film. Instead he aimed to provide a window into the life of one of Germany’s most famous writers, free from the shackles of historical accuracy.

Historical records of this love affair are pretty thin anyways. Caroline von Wolzogen destroyed most of the love letters, and in any case such private affairs in 18th century Germany were carried out in a discrete fashion that is hardly imaginable in this day and age.

The historical drama has been entered in the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. Source: DPA
The historical drama has been entered in the upcoming Berlin Film Festival. Source: DPA
The historical drama was nominated for an award at the last Berlin International Film Festival. Source: DPA

 

Mr. Graf’s directing, which was nominated for an award at this year’s Berlinale film festival, does pay homage to that age of discretion. The scenes maintain a certain distance from the events – the camera moves among the three lovers’ stories much like the many letters that passed back and forth between them. The camera also follows the domestic help that would have roamed their castle in Thuringia. This is also imagined – the illiterate help did not leave notebooks behind for historians to peruse.

Yet Mr. Graf gave his characters a surprisingly modern and vibrant voice. This was only possible because he rewrote Schiller’s letters and at times crafted his own letters for the poet, even omitting some of the conspicuous character traits that would have shown through his actual writings.

Take Schiller’s legendary letter on November 15, 1780 in which he effectively declared his wife Charlotte to be his property, writing of her “Mein Geschöpf Musst Du Sein”, or “You must be my creation.” The line became a symbol in German history of what life for married women was like in the 18th century, yet it is entirely missing from Mr. Graf’s film. That is because he intended to give the characters a more modern portrayal – not subservient but equals.

Schiller is saved from the harsh realities of the world by the two sisters, who warm the freezing young man with their naked bodies by the river’s shore.

Florian Stetter plays the young Schiller, with his delicate features and poor as a beggar, both unpolished and yet oppressively beautiful. He roams the streets of Weimar as the embodiment of desire itself. He is an idealist, passionate for a world of free thought and raw emotion.

Mr. Graf sees the comedic side of the young Schiller’s overdone idealism. The good young man can’t swim and nearly drowns when he tries to save a young girl from the River Saale. Schiller is saved from the harsh realities of the world by the two sisters, who warm the freezing young man with their naked bodies by the river’s shore.

The director then cuts to a scene of Schiller, who was repeatedly ill in real life, at home suffering from a high fever. He is lying in bed, drenched in his own sweat – and writing. Two letters at once to each of the sisters – one with his right hand and one with his left.

The bedroom, the desk, and the river bank

The three recurring sets in the film are the bedroom, the desk and the banks of the river Saale. What comes through in nearly every scene is that the director not only seems to find his three protagonists intellectually and morally fascinating. He seems personally touched by their daring display of carefree love, never pulling back under the pretext of the conventions of the day. Caroline, Charlotte and Schiller craft a plan to live together in Weimar – Fritz and Charlotte marry for exactly this reason.

Yet Mr. Graf is no hopeless romantic – his film also portrays difficult realities as children are born and the family grows bigger. Caroline, played by Hannah Herzsprung, puts up with a lot. She helps her sister through a life-threatening birth while Schiller sleeps. She cooks soup for the family and its many guests. At night she slips out to find comfort in the arms of men who pay for her services. The beautiful Ms. Herzsprung’s dignified portrayal of the character sends a clear message: whatever their treatment by the opposite sex, women and their solidarity to each other remains.

The film is also about the written word. The three lovers write not just to each other but are prolific in their own right. From Schiller’s pen came a documentary on the history of the Netherlands and a legendary lecture on the value of universal history, while he also edited the literary journal “Die Horen.” Caroline wrote short stories and an anonymous novel that would in her day be attributed to a writer from Goethe’s circle, Agnes von Lilien.

Director Dominik Graf, like Schiller in his day, posed the question – just how far can art depart from history? “Beloved Sisters” is a fantastic film about the language of love, and about love that gives voice to passions.

Translated from German by Christopher Cermak.

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