[Dominik Graf] gets the best out of me. He makes me better than I thought I could be.
Nearly a decade on from his theatrical feature, The Red Cockatoo, prolific Teuton filmmaker Dominik Graf returns to the big screen—and to the New York Film Festival last fall following the made-for-TV Dreileben trilogy—with Beloved Sisters. The epic period romance elegantly tracks the decades-long, tumultuous love triangle between real life post-Enlightenment philosopher/poet Friedrich Schiller and the Lengefeld sisters, Charlotte and Caroline. Graf’s tale—it’s a speculative one, not stone cold history—is anchored by great emotional credibility and narrative intelligence, and a script that addresses not only the affairs of the heart but issues of class, authorship, and political idealism during Western Europe’s bumpy transition from the 18th to 19th century.
The film’s legitimacy is furthered rooted in the power of its formidable ensemble cast and Hannah Herzsprung warrants particular praise as Caroline. The 33-year-old German actress made her introductory splash on the festival circuit in 2006 with 4 Minutes, playing a prison inmate-cum-piano prodigy, and she’s no less spellbinding here as a free-spirited, unhappily married, and (it’s hinted at) mentally unstable woman whose suppressed passions make her body quake with intensity whenever they’re relieved from a tightly-bound corset. It is Caroline who emerges as the most intriguing of the ménage à trois as her personal sacrifices are arguably the greatest, continually faced with the internal battle between what she wants and what she knows is right.
Beloved Sisters opens in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on January 9.
During the Beloved Sisters Q&A at the New York Film Festival, Gavin Smith from Film Comment called your performance “truly volcanic.” I can’t think of anything more fitting.
Thank you so much. I actually want to apologize for that Q&A because I’d just arrived in New York two hours before joining the panel. I had a bad flight. He asked such great questions and made room for conversation, but I was so tired. I had a lot of trouble concentrating.
How taxing was it to step into Caroline’s shoes for as long as you did? You go through such intense emotional highs and there’s so much fire brewing beneath the surface.
You know, I had my breakout role ten years ago now in a film called 4 Minutes and there have been many other great roles leading up to this one. But I’d have to say that the experience working with Dominik Graf, an amazing director who I’d always wanted to work with, was extremely emotional and exhausting. And I say that in the most positive light possible. It required really long hours and we shot almost every single day for two months, but Dominik provided us with such great material and I was so happy when it finally premiered in competition at Berlinale. When I saw the finished film for the first time with thousands of people in the audience, I was so pleased by the whole experience. This was, really, my first grown-up role playing a woman. Caroline is very mature, even though we see glimpses of her immaturity at times in the way she conducts herself.
Two months seems like a long time, but not uncommon for a film of this magnitude.
In Germany, shoots can last between 30 to 80 days depending on the size of productions. I think we had around 50 shooting days, but we also had a lot of travel days because we shot everything on location. We shot in the original Schiller house and all the castles where the Lengefeld sisters lived, so we traveled all throughout Germany. It felt like every week we were in a different location, which, of course, helped the film. We traveled exclusively by train. Nowadays, with planes, you can go from one place to another so quickly, but it made me so aware of the passage of time on a train, which reminds me of the characters waiting for the love letters to arrive in the film.
You’re playing a historical figure, but also someone with a lot of mystique about her and there are holes in her narrative. How did you go about balancing history and fiction?
Since the script is based on a novel, that was the important document we had. When Charlotte died, Caroline destroyed almost every one of those letters because she didn’t want anyone to know about the ménage à trois. There were only few letters actually found. For those in-between moments that Dominik imagined, I didn’t even know whether they were real or not because the script was so well-written. And he hadn’t written a screenplay for years prior to this one. I think the last time he wrote a feature screenplay was right after he graduated from film school. It’s so impressive how Dominik was able to keep the language that’s no longer in use beautiful without it becoming theatrical. And we actually wrote some of the letters ourselves. We had to rehearse that for weeks and it was quite difficult. In the beginning, all three of us said, “It’s going to be easy!” [Laughs] But every letter was different and it felt like we were learning how to write all over again.
Those little details must help you immensely. It’s quite different from being handed a prop and asked to imagine you wrote the thing.
Of course! Oh my god, yes. It really took so much time to sit down and write each letter. You really understand what you’re writing and we learned it by heart. Do you remember the sequence where the characters read the letters aloud to the audience?
I do remember that sequence. Watching it, I’d assumed it was purely a stylistic choice from the director, but now that I’m hearing your process, it adds a lot more dimension.
These days, communication is so quick, and in the film, communication is slowed down. There was meaning behind everything you wrote. It was perfect writing and I enjoyed doing that so much. During the preparation, which lasted five months, I found myself writing differently outside of production. Even with emails, I really thought about what I was writing and, again, I became aware of time. I keep saying this, but this film really made me think about the passage of time.
Dominik is prolific in Germany and he’s clearly in total control of his craft. What kind of tone does he set on a film in terms of creating a collaborative environment with his actors?
I still find it hard to describe, but he is a master. In Germany, he’s one of the best directors we have. Every actor is extraordinary in every one of his movies. Everyone who works with him will tell you that you have to work with him if you’re blessed with the opportunity. You feel so safe around him and feel free to try things that you’d never done before. There’s such a strong connection between him and the actors. He doesn’t like to rehearse too much because he’s scared about losing this little something that only happens once, you know? Dominik will tell you: “Let’s just go for it. The right feeling will come.” I would commit to working with him in the future without even reading the script. He gets the best out of me. He makes me better than I thought I could be.
The trust between a director and an actor can truly make or break a performance because they’re your eyes. You can’t watch your own performance. You’re blind, essentially.
Exactly! If I concerned myself with how my performance looked while doing it, I would be so bad. [Laughs] I wouldn’t be one with my body and my feelings, but too much in my head, you know? I think so much about the character, do so much preparation and research prior to shooting, yet when I finally get to set, I can’t think about that stuff anymore. I just have to be.
When you find unprecedented critical success on films like 4 Minutes and Beloved Sisters, does it up the stakes for you when it comes to considering the next project?
That’s not important to me—thank god. [Laughs] I want to mention that after 4 Minutes, I received amazing offers. I got so many good roles every year after that. There have been some truly great characters. I was always so happy with whatever I was working on at the time. I actually don’t think about the things I haven’t done or want to do because I feel so blessed with what I have. I become so preoccupied with what I’m working on. And every role was so different!
But you’ve made bigger impressions playing the heavy, supremely dark characters. Do you find that these kinds of roles are inherently more challenging? Are they more artful?
To put it simply, I don’t seek them out. These parts just happened to be there for me and I felt very strongly about playing them at each given moment in time. For instance, this past summer, I filmed a huge romantic comedy that’s due in February. Again, it’s something completely different from what I’ve done before. It’s bright and pink. [Laughs] So I’m not going out of my way to choose dark roles. And, as the story goes, certain movies just get seen more than others. I’ve done lighter movies that weren’t as successful and simply end up in the shadows of my other work.
What’s the name of the “bright and pink” one coming in February?
It’s called Traumfrauen in German. It’s a big Warner Brothers production. I don’t know if there’s an English title yet. I think it’s going to be something like, Dream Girls or Women of Your Dreams. “Traum” means “dream” and “frauen” means “women.” It’s like Sex & the City set in Berlin.
I checked out Lila, Lila last night. It was on the lighter side and quite enjoyable. And I had no idea The Words starring Bradley Cooper was a remake prior to watching that movie.
That was the remake of our movie! I loved working with Daniel [Brühl] on Lila, Lila. I don’t know why it wasn’t more successful in Germany. I guess it has to do with timing, too. If there was any science to this business, everyone would only make successful movies, right?
Which brings me to Who Am I, your most recent film. They picked up the rights to remake that one so fast. What are your feelings toward remakes in general?
It was huge in Germany. They sold the remake rights to Warner Brothers. I think it’s fine. I mean, why not do it? I see it as a huge compliment. They liked the movie so much that they want to make it again? Go for it. And the lead actors in Who Am I are well-known in Germany. It’s completely understandable that viewers in different countries would want to see faces that are familiar to them. Movies are made for audiences, so I don’t see anything wrong with remakes.
Now going much further back, how did you find your way into this business? Your father’s also an actor, so I can’t help but wonder if he played a vital part in your decision to act.
He actually hated the thought of me becoming an actress. My parents were always very strict. We used to have this really nice house on the countryside and they shot a movie there once, which was when I first discovered my father’s profession. He was away a lot and when he would return home, he never talked about what he had been doing. He just enjoyed spending time with me and my sister, and being a father to us. I think that was really nice to have. But when they were shooting that movie in our house, my mom said to me, “That’s what your father does.” I was 10 years old. I remembering saying to my father, “I see what you’re doing and I want to do it as well. Can you get me a part?” To which he replied, “No!” [Laughs] When I was 15, I went to a casting session without my parents knowing and got a part on this really nice TV series. Of course, I had to tell my parents so they could sign off on my contract. We made the agreement that I could do it as long as I promised to finish school. Much later, when I was studying in Vienna, the script for 4 Minutes came into my life. The film was such a big success that I left school without graduating. It’s funny because my father will still ask me, “What’s going on with your studies?” Come on… [Laughs]
“That ship sailed a long time ago.”
My parents are really protective. They were just scared that I would end up unhappy.
I saw that your father starred on the TV series SOKO 5113 since the late 70s and you appeared on the same show in 2000. That’s such a neat thing to have.
Of course! So the series that my father started out on was set in Munich and they branched out into virtually every other city in Germany after that. It’s a police procedural. The one that I got a little part on took place in Cologne. These are just a bunch of spin-offs, basically. But I would love to work with my father one day. It would be so great if we could do a movie together.
Is that something that you guys talk about from time to time?
No, because all he really cares about is whether I’m happy and whether I’m being treated well on sets. He’s always asking me, “Are they good to you? Do they treat you nicely? Are you happy?” He’s just such a father like that. I know that he’ll always be there to do something with me if a project came up, but my agent is my agent and my parents are my parents. It never really crosses that line. Also, my sister isn’t in the industry and I always feel bad that she might think I have a special bond with our father when she doesn’t. When we’re home, we’re just family.
Do you ever think about making a feature of your own?
I’m a really curious person and I love to experience new things, so I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that happened. I would never say no to anything. You never know what will happen.