Sisterly love and loathing

The engrossing Dutch drama “Twin Sisters” is what Hollywood once called a “woman’s picture.” It is an emotionally potent saga that centers on the World War II years, with an emphasis that is ultimately personal rather than political.

Based on Tessa de Loo’s best-selling novel, which is now a staple of Dutch high school reading lists, “Twin Sisters” was a hit in Holland in 2003. The film garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and belatedly received an aborted U.S. theatrical release in May.

It has just been released on DVD and offers all the satisfactions of an expertly constructed, impeccably photographed and terrifically acted historical epic. It even offers a smidgen of controversy, by treating the suffering of all sides during the war equally, but it is hardly an apologia for the Third Reich.

The film begins in 1920s Germany with a setup straight out of Dickens. Two Catholic twins, orphaned unexpectedly, are separated by shortsighted relatives.

The healthy Anna is handed over to German cousins who raise pigs and treat her less like a child than a serf. Lotte, who has tuberculosis, is taken and raised by a wealthy couple in the Netherlands.

Early in the proceedings, “Twin Sisters” flashes forward to the present. Two elderly women, clearly Anna and Lotte, have a chance reunion which one of them welcomes and the other recoils against. What is the source of this ill will between two sisters who had once been so close?

It’s both complicated and clear. Lotte’s foster parents hide her letters to Anna instead of mailing them, which works to sever the sisters’ relationship. But they share a profound and almost telepathic connection, even when they have no idea where the other is.

Years later, now a glamorous young woman, Lotte learns about her parents’ deception and tracks down her sister. Anna has long since escaped from the farm and works as a maid for a countess whose friends include Nazi officers celebrating the imminent war.

Anna is sociable, malleable and willing to go along with those who see Hitler as the solution to Germany’s problems. She is smart and strong enough to make her own way, but not sufficiently educated or reflective to see the evil in the Third Reich.

Lotte, who is about to be engaged to a Jewish fellow, is appalled that Anna can tolerate such a setting. She invites Anna to leave Germany and come to Holland, but subsequently doesn’t follow up.

One might expect Anna to bear some bitterness, for she was forced to endure a nasty, Cinderella-like childhood while Lotte was raised in luxury. Rather it is Lotte who comes to hold a grudge against Anna — and every German who wore a uniform or loved someone who did — for robbing her of her beau.

In fact, in an awful twist of fate, Lotte bears some small responsibility for her fiancé’s horrible end. Spoiled and insulated in her own way, even in occupied Holland, she only feels the war when it hits her directly.

Ironically, the same can be said of Anna. She’s not a politically aware person, and one can accept that she’s ignorant of the depravity of the war and the campaign against the Jews. It is only when she loses a dear one that she sees the cost of Hitler’s policies.

“Twin Sisters” in no way equates the murder of Jews with the death of German soldiers in battle. A compassionate portrait of lives ripped open by war, it offers a deeply involving entree to a history that, for entire generations, is very far away.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.