In 1788 Wiemar, the Lengefeld sisters (Hannah Hertzsprung and Henrietta Confurius) become aquainted with the famous Post Enlightenment writer and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter). Soon, the three are involved in a complex love triangle.

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BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL: In the absence of bigger marquee names at this year’s Berlinale (no new films from Christian Petzold, Fatih Akin or Tom Tykwer), attention fell upon veteran Dominik Graf, and this sumptuous costume-drama: a retelling of the life of German playwright-philosopher Friedrich Schiller from the point of view of the two women—sisters Charlotte and Caroline von Legenfeld—who dominated and divided his personal life.
 
The set-up is very much the standard stuff of romantic fiction. The young writer is a problematic hero—handsome, undoubtedly brilliant, but of limited means. The sisters, meanwhile, are technically members of the Weimar aristocracy, but their branch of the family is almost penniless, and their prospects have been further diminished by the premature death of their father. In desperation, older sister Caroline has sought to improve their lot by entering a loveless marriage with a wealthy nobleman, but urges Charlotte not to make the same choice; rather, to wait instead for true love to come along. Yet when it does, Caroline finds herself equally beguiled...
 
I’ve remarked before on the singularity of Graf’s career, with an expansive filmography that’s confined almost entirely to television. (Although, in this regard, history might yet judge him one of the prescient filmmakers of his time.) It’s been almost a decade since his last theatrical feature—2006’s The Red Cockatoo—and he clearly relishes the return to the big screen. Shooting mostly on actual historical locations, his camera prowls the salons and courtyards with a restless, alert sort of energy. The production design is meticulous, and the story’s emphasis on clandestine encounters, on confidences exchanged in secret, not only inspires some imaginative compositions (much of the action is glimpsed through open doorways), but allows Graf to indulge in some of his trademark zooms; not since Altman has a director used this rather old-fashioned device so persistently or well.
 
Above all, though, it is a hymn to the beauty of the Thuringian countryside—das grüne Herz Deutschlands, as it’s known—and many of the best sequences here (Schiller and the two women lazing beneath a massive oak; the poet saving a young boy from drowning in a river) have a delicate plein air splendour, beautifully captured in Michael Wiesweg’s digital cinematography.
 
Working from his own screenplay, Graf neatly manages to link the personal with the political. In light of growing revolutionary violence from France, Schiller finds himself forced to reconsider the message of his early drama The Robbers, which urged a similar uprising in the Bavarian forest (and whose publication, in 1781, saw him made an honorary member of the French Republic). As he accepts an academic post in Jena, he begins the slow retreat from the sturm und drang movement, toward the more humanist exploration of historical themes that would characterise his later work.
 
By and large, however, the film prefers to concentrate upon the man rather than the public intellectual—with the result that most of the actual writing here is epistolary in nature, consisting of anguished, carefully encoded love-letters exchanged in secret between the three principals. These are read aloud, often direct-to-camera, by their respective writers—an elegant, if slightly theatrical device.
 
And while the tone is undeniably melodramatic—inevitably, that brief interlude in the river sees Schiller confined to bed and sickening almost unto death—it’s never crass or predictable. When he’s urged by the sisters to shed his wet clothes on the riverbank, Graf resists the obvious conclusion—a sun-dappled three-way beneath the spreading boughs—and focuses instead upon a single gesture, the two women tightly clutching each other’s hand, that manages not only to be both intensely erotic, but also serves a deeper story-purpose: henceforth, we (and they) realise, they are destined to love and share him equally.
 
Of course, it doesn’t quite work that way. Charlotte marries him, and after declining initially to share his bed (believing it unfair that she should enjoy pleasure while Caroline is denied it), eventually bears the playwright four children—monopolising much of his time, if not the majority of his affections. But Caroline, we gradually understand, harbours not only the deeper passion, but the richer and more complex sensibility. She is herself a writer of considerable talent (following Schiller’s death, at just 45, she would pen his biography), and her long struggle for self-expression, for an identity independent of both the man she loves and the husband to whom she is bound, becomes the film’s most urgent and compelling narrative—aided in no small measure by the quietly furious performance of Hannah Herzsprung, almost unrecognisable here as the truculent prison inmate-turned-concert pianist from Chris Kraus’ 4 Minutes.
 
Beside such intensity, Henriette Confurius’ more passive Charlotte is occasionally overshadowed—though oddly, hers is the more convincing ‘period’ performance. (Entire sonnet-sequences, meanwhile, could be written in praise of her piercing blue eyes.) As Schiller, meanwhile, Florian Stetter is neither a firebrand nor a milksop, but something more plausible: a writer whose self-absorption masks a fundamental indecisiveness—ironically, while rendering him sufficiently remote (and therefore ‘intellectual’) to beguile two passionate yet by no means worldly young women. He’s not a fraud—his plays are remarkable, and his poems some of the most important in the German language—but the man, inevitably, is far less than the work.
 
The version screened in Berlin was a 170-minute ‘director’s cut’; apparently a shorter (140-minute) edit is available for international sales. It’s easy to imagine an abridged version, since much of this story drifts along, albeit in an extremely pleasant manner: as Schiller oscillates, first inclining to one of the women, and then to the other; as the sisters quarrel and then reconcile... There are a handful of absurd moments, beats which tip the tone too firmly toward comedy, but for the most part its fundamental intelligence and conviction sustain it. And to its credit, there’s nothing airless or genteel about it; on the contrary, it fairly seethes with life and passion, like the three sides of the doomed love triangle it describes.

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2 hours 51 min

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