Beloved Sisters

Back in the 80s, I had a creative writing professor who discouraged his students from using word processors (as personal computers were commonly called then). To his mind, digital technology made writing too easy—it allowed people to write faster than they could think and therefore threatened to create a flood of thoughtless prose. At the time I thought he was nuts—back then, any but the smallest revisions usually forced one to retype an entire manuscript—but now that people can digitally write and publish an endless supply of their own poorly reasoned, stream-of-consciousness bullshit, I have to concede that my professor had a point.

I thought of this while watching Beloved Sisters, a hefty German drama about the supposed menage a trois between the poet Friedrich Schiller; his wife, Charlotte von Lengefeld; and Lengefeld’s older sister, Caroline, whose novel Agnes von Lilien was published anonymously in the late 1790s and popularly attributed to both Schiller and his literary colleague Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Writer-director Dominik Graf (A Map of the Heart) has various things on his mind, including the complex romantic arrangement of his three protagonists (as he tells it, Schiller married Charlotte mainly so he could sleep with Caroline, who had a husband already) and the growing intellectual ferment of the movement that would be called Weimar Classicism. But the film’s foremost accomplishment is transporting the viewer back to an era when writing took much more time and words were more thoughtfully chosen.

Not only were words more thoughtfully chosen, but thoughtful writing was more highly prized. To the upper crust of Rudolstadt, where the Lengefeld sisters and their widowed mother reside, poets are rock stars: when Goethe breaks off a relationship with Charlotte and Caroline’s mother, she takes to her bed in anguish, and when Schiller and Goethe first meet by the shores of the Saale River, aristocrats line the upper-story windows of the mansion across the water to spy on the two poets with hand telescopes and binoculars and try to read their lips as they speak. “Those two are among the most important people of our age,” declares one nobleman. Imagine someone today saying that about Wendell Berry and Rita Dove.

Beloved Sisters delivers a few heavy-breathing sex scenes, but for the 18th-century characters, physical love can hardly compare to the excitement of receiving a love letter, written with a quill pen and sealed with wax. Graf lingers over each note, noting the tactile pleasures of pen, ink, and crusty parchment, and the two sisters study their respective missives carefully, internalizing every word and reading between the lines. Schiller’s great passion of the moment is the highly readable Didot typeface from France, an innovation that offers the promise of mass-produced books. “Imagine if one day everyone could read, understand, and buy a book,” he enthuses. “Ideas bound for all.” His dream has since come true, though sometimes the idea part doesn’t pan out.  v