The Loves of a Poet (Plus a Mysterious Chinese Dish)

Beloved Sisters-1

Courtesy of Music Box Films

For some of us, historical dramas – when done well – are endlessly fascinating, both educational and escapist. Part of the allure is the seductive aspect of losing oneself in another time (and often, place), complete with noble sentiments, picturesque settings and lush period costumes that were undoubtedly uncomfortable as hell but look fabulous on screen. Bringing history and historical figures to life is no easy feat – how to create a compelling and (yes) entertaining film without completely distorting the facts? Throw in a passionate romance and it can all easily become overblown.

Prolific German film and television director Dominik Graf has done a very good job with Beloved Sisters (Die geliebten Schwestern), which uses both fact and liberal conjecture to tell the story of celebrated German poet/playwright/philosopher Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) and his relationship with the film’s titular siblings, Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herszsprung) and Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius). Along with the evolution of the trio’s complicated ménage a trois, the film depicts an era when poets like Schiller (and his pal Goethe) were the equivalent of critically-acclaimed, convention-flouting rock stars; at a time when flouting convention was truly scandalous. From the moment the penniless Schiller meets shy, intelligent Charlotte and, a bit later, outgoing, equally astute Caroline, he is smitten – as are they – both physically and intellectually. The aristocratic sisters are also financially strapped, with Caroline stuck in an unhappy marriage of convenience (her wealthy husband supports both her sister and their mother). She eventually convinces Schiller to marry Charlotte, so that the three could “live the dream” of being together. Needless to say, things don’t work out all that smoothly.

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Courtesy of Music Box Films

The 170-minute film, which covers the period between the late 1780s through the early 1800s, is briskly and beautifully shot, with both interiors and scenes of the gorgeous Thuringian countryside suffused with natural light. The dialogue, witty and playful, seems modern without sounding anachronistic; and the acting is naturalistic and solid all around, especially Herszsprung as the frustrated, fiery Caroline. Even the near-hysterical outbursts of the girls’ ambitious mama Louise (Claudia Messner) come off as believable, perhaps because, like all Graf’s characters, she is multidimensional. The invigorating era of post-Enlightenment Weimar, along with reports of the simultaneous French Revolution, provide a fascinating backdrop, especially for those (like myself), who may not be so familiar with 18th-century German culture and history. One of the film’s several striking set pieces shows Schiller’s first lecture at the University of Jena, where he is greeted with a standing O. Also welcome are scenes of Caroline’s struggles as an author in her own right, at a time when respectable women published anonymously. With its grand, sometimes overwrought emotions, Beloved Sisters may get a bit sudsy at times, but it’s good, substantial soap; never cheap or lightweight.


Courtesy of IFC Films

On the other end of the cinematic spectrum is The Search for General Tso, Ian Cheney’s short (71-minute) documentary about the ubiquitous Chinese chicken dish of the film’s title. Humorous and whimsical in tone, the film travels to China to uncover the origins of the actual (19th century, Hunan) general and his relationship to the deep-fried, spicy-sweet entrée. A true link between them is not found, but what we get is way more interesting: a brief history of the plight of Chinese immigrants in America and the adaptation of Chinese cuisine to American regional tastes, from early (pre-McDonald’s) fried chicken nuggets in the Midwest to Szechuan alligator (!) in New Orleans. Cheney includes interviews with elderly chefs and restaurateurs, several of whom experienced discrimination in the early days of their business, only to later become beloved community fixtures as Chinese restaurants became a source of comfort food for Americans.

Eventually, we do learn the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, but it’s almost secondary to the bigger story of an immigrant group’s adaptation and how ethnic food shapes our culture and perceptions. That subject requires a much more in-depth investigation, but meanwhile The Search for General Tso serves as an enjoyable, at times poignant, appetizer.

Beloved Sisters is opening tomorrow at Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston Street, NYC.

The Search for General Tso is playing at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, and is available on demand.

Marina Zogbi