German Cinema

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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.

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