‘Young Goethe in Love’
Directed by Philipp Stölzl
Written by Christoph Mueller and Alexander Dydyna
Starring Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu
Running time 102 minutes
MPAA rating— Not rated
Both the English title and the original German one–“Goethe!”–give clues as to Philipp Stölzl’s approach to its subject, the famed poet/playwright/philosopher/scientist/artist Johann Wolfgang Goethe (later, von Goethe), 1749-1832.
Like “Shakespeare in Love,” this film takes a light-hearted approach to its subject, who, in the German-speaking world, is revered much as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world, if not more so. But we’re talking romance rather than boring old literature. As for that German exclamation point, it’s meant, I guess, to prepare us for the “wowee” factor of our hero—his carousing, loving, scrapping young self.
Johann is 23 (though actor Alexander Fehling looks a good deal older) and a failing doctoral student in his native Frankfurt. Far from upset at his failure, Johann clowns around, writing an obscene message in the snow to the stuffy professors who flunked him. Together with his friend Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), he visits a tavern, where they drink to “Sturm and Drunk” (as in Sturm und Drang, the Romantic movement in Germany that Goethe helped pioneer).
Tired of financing young Johann and his hobby of scribbling, Johann’s father (Henry Huebchen) sends him off to the provincial town of Wetzlar to study law and work with the established lawyer Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu, of “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” etc.).
During a ride through the fields, Johann stops at the picturesquely ramshackle farmhouse where Charlotte “Lotte” Buff (Miriam Stein) lives with her father and many younger siblings. The two have met before, sparring as is the custom of rom-com couples; but this time, Johann falls in love with Lotte, a bold, tousle-headed Meg Ryan type. Meanwhile, Wilhelm, now Johann’s roommate, takes up with a married woman. When that woman eventually rejects Wilhelm, the distraught young man kills himself. As a result, Johann writes his famous epistolatory novel, “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”), which soon gains him fame. (The book’s fame was so great, in fact, that a wave of copy-cat suicides ensued.)
If you’ve guessed that I didn’t think much of “Young Goethe in Love,” you’re correct. Though the film is replete with charming scenery, it’s mostly of the familiar historical movie variety: muddy village streets, lovely fields near sunset, that ramshackle farmhouse (much like the one in the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice,” starring Keira Knightley). There’s a duel, for which Johann is briefly thrown into the slammer.
Goethe was a poet; his two-volume drama, “Faust,” is considered one of the greatest works in German literature and has been the inspiration for countless artists and composers (Schubert, Mahler, Gounod). And while “Young Goethe in Love” quotes a few lines of Goethe’s early poems, nowhere is there a hint that this callow youngster will become a literary giant.
As for historical accuracy: Goethe did work in law, Jerusalem did shoot himself, and Goethe did fall in love with Lotte, though, in reality, she was already engaged to Kestner at the time. I doubt that Johann and Lotte tumbled in the hay on their first so-to-speak “date,” and I don’t know of any account of a duel between Johann and Kestner.
But who ever let facts get in the way of a rousing tale?