“Dominik Graf has finally properly landed in America, and it’s about damn time.” So begins Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, and if you’re going to read only one review of Beloved Sisters in full, make it this one. We’ll come back to Danny’s piece in a moment, but if you weren’t yet aware that Graf needs to be better known outside of Germany, Danny’s first paragraph will fix that. Chances are, you’ll want to know more, too, and he’s helpfully linked to his essay on last year’s retrospective in Rotterdam.
“Beloved Sisters opens with all the trappings of the boilerplate TV costume drama apparently intact,” writes James Lattimer for Slant: “a tasteful piano/woodwind score, mildly over-the-top period details, tight bodices, and the requisite historical buildings, here scrubbed to an almost artificial shine. As the avuncular narrator informs us, it’s autumn 1787 and the predictably beautiful Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius) has been sent to the court in Weimar, where she’s supposed to pick out a future husband of suitable affluence and standing. The only person to catch her eye, though, is famous, yet penniless, poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), who eventually follows her back home at the behest of Charlotte’s unhappily married sister, Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herzsprung), who finds him equally alluring. Yet just as the stage seems set for a dully impassioned love triangle, the film blossoms instead into a breezily utopian depiction of a ménage á trois whose entirely matter-of-fact presentation sets up an intriguing dissonance with the prim period setting.”
David Ehrlich for Little White Lies: “Working backwards from the fact that Caroline burned all of her correspondences with Schiller upon the writer’s death (and conspicuously omitted many sensitive details from the biography she wrote about him), Beloved Sisters chases the believably rendered idea that the three Germans comprised a warm and fiercely exclusive emotional tripod, like a bodice-ripping Jules and Jim… Graf, a prolific director of German television whose return to film was contingent upon the project being ‘amphibian’ in nature (new slang for works that are intended to screen theatrically in full and on TV in smaller slices), immediately makes it clear that Beloved Sisters shares its characters’ enthusiasm for defying convention. Beginning with a garish and blocky title treatment that plays like an explicit nod to Resnais’s final films, Graf’s film takes almost every available opportunity to violate the established precepts of stuffy period pieces.”
Now then, Danny Kasman: “At its full, two hour and fifty minute length, the film is a bristling epic, brilliantly told as a near epistolary saga: a film transformed into a vessel for letters to be written, sent, read, and responded to. It brazenly contradicts the modern assumption that pre-modern technology engendered slow, stolid communications; instead, energy exudes from its flurry of letter-writing. This energy resembles at times the fevered stylization of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence—zooms-in, dollies-out, swooping cameras, fragrant dissolves, inserts of period objects—prolonged and sustained for a length that bespeaks of Graf’s craftsman precision and tuning of pace through working in television’s confines…. Above all, it’s driven by the passion of the private reverie between the two women and lone artist that they hope posits a new future for them all and, perhaps, in their idyllic relationship, for humankind.”
For Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club, “the film is marred by Graf’s creaky televisual, digital style; there’s never a sense of the sumptuousness of the period, and Schiller himself often seems less like a learned poet than a hunky bystander.” But for Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, “Beloved Sisters was exactly what I needed: a whirlwind defense of letting your emotions ruin everything magnificently.” Earlier: Reviews from Berlin.
Update, 10/2: “If excess—visual and aural—is the melodrama’s stock-in-trade, Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters is an atypical example of the genre for the extent to which it is propelled by language,” writes Chris Wisniewski for Reverse Shot. “Graf demonstrates more interest in how to visualize minds grasping at connections across distances than in the sexual or romantic energy generated by spry, beautiful bodies in close physical proximity. This is not to say that Graf’s film is icy or academic, fully absent carnal pleasure, or that it lacks for melodramatic excess.”
Update, 10/6: For Nathaniel Rogers, “the first half has a charming youthful idealism and a firm grasp on illicit if modest thrills that come from soulmate devotion, and secretive infatuations like a Heavenly Creatures without the blood spattering psychosis.”
Update, 11/10: Olaf Möller returns to Beloved Sisters with a full-blown review for Film Comment: “If for Graf, the trio’s attempts at finding a structure to house the many aspects of love and passion recall the ideals and alternative lifestyles of the Seventies, that extraordinarily contradictory period also engendered a cosmopolitan cinematic modernism that is echoed in his treatment of the material. The key points of reference are Truffaut’s Two English Girls, Rohmer’s German-language The Marquise of O, and Wajda’s The Maids of Wilko as well as less well-known films such as Klaus Kirschner’s 1976 Mozart: Recordings of a Youth and Michael Hild’s 1978 Tagebuch des Verführers, both of which informed Graf’s approach to period detail and the era’s fundamentally different sense of time and space.”
Update, 12/26: For the New York Times, Larry Rohter calls up Graf to talk about “the image of Schiller, a cultural hero in Germany, he acquired as a child and how it changed as a result of making Beloved Sisters.”
For Nick Schager, writing for the LA Weekly, “Beloved Sisters‘ power comes less from narrative surprise than from its portrait of the complex pressures and compromises placed on men and women during the era, as well as its tragic suggestion—echoed in chatter about the storming of the Bastille, and the ugly fallout that ensued during the French Revolution’s early days—that upending the status quo, politically and romantically, is not without its potentially dire consequences.”
Updates, 1/10: Beloved Sisters is “immersive and intelligent, but not what one would call difficult,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. “Graf’s knack for no-nonsense storytelling means that Beloved Sisters seems to fly past. Each detail and observation—whether it’s about the Romantic mindset, gender roles, or fame in the pre-celebrity age—is integrated so seamlessly that the movie feels effortless. Which, of course, it isn’t; the sort of fleet, sure-footed filmmaking practiced by Graf takes a great deal of serious smarts.”
For Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve, Graf’s “handsomely mounted, beautifully acted epic biopic (running just shy of three hours) succeeds in reducing the lives of three important figures in German literary history to a rather banal love triangle.”
And for Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com, “it’s Herzsprung and Confurius who make the movie worth seeing: they give it a pulse.” More from Stephen Holden (New York Times), Farran Smith Nehme (New York Post) and Stephanie Zacharek (Voice).
Update, 1/13: Danny Miller talks with Graf for Cinephiled.