Film Review: Young Goethe in Love

Though far from the rollicking success of <i>Shakespeare in Love</i> or as moving as Goethe&#8217;s original tale, this visually lush, well-acted German-language biopic is a worthy take on a formative period in the great writer&#8217;s life.

If they could do it with Shakespeare, why not with Germany’s greatest literary genius? Let’s do it, they must have thought, let’s make Young Goethe in Love!

A better name would have been The Sorrows of Young Goethe (the German title is just Goethe!), since the film purports to show the real story behind the author’s breakthrough epistolary novel, which became an international sensation after its publication in 1774. And it is refreshing to see a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, struggling to win his father’s approval and find his place in the muddy world before his vast success as philosopher, scientist, prolific writer, poet and dramatist (Faust). But, aside from exaggerating Goethe’s early failures (he’d already been practicing law before he arrived in the rural outpost of Wetzlar, and more important, had published poetry and written a well-received drama before the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther), the film takes quite a while to hit its stride.

Early on, director and co-screenwriter Philipp Stölzl (North Face) randomly inserts incidental music around the dialogue, an effect that belongs more to “Grey’s Anatomy” than 18th-century Germany, as if the audience needs goosing. On the other hand, he and production designer Udo Kramer admirably take great pains to display Frankfurt and Wetzlar in all their peeled-paint, mucky glory. Birgit Hutter’s exquisite costumes are appropriately worn, and cinematographer Kolja Brandt artfully captures the dark interiors suggesting German Romantic paintings. We’re to understand that then felt like now, that these drunken young men in tri-cornered hats and bustling women with muddy hems on their gowns were once modern, which is one of the great pleasures of period films. Sometimes it feels that Stölzl is trying too hard, with one too many scenes of intense partying, and sometimes not hard enough, with one too many shots of the beautiful green/blue countryside.

Yet how many films bring you to Goethe and his time? As Young Goethe begins,
our hero is a rebellious, artsy law student, more interested in drink and poetry than studying for his bar exam. Predictably, he fails, and after using his entire body to write in snow “Kiss my ass” for the faculty upstairs, he is sent by his rigid, disapproving father to Wetzlar to clerk in the county court. There he befriends a sensitive co-worker named Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), who brings him to a ball where he meets the intoxicated and intoxicating minx Lotte Buff. Miriam Stein resembles a young Debra Winger, and shares that actress’ effortless, feisty sensuality. They pretend to rebuff each other, but next thing you know Goethe is helping her and her motherless brood of siblings bake thyme-infused bread.
As Goethe succeeds in love, so too in work, where he wins the approval of his officious superior, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), who, without his knowing, has already won Lotte’s impoverished father’s consent for his daughter’s hand.

Stein and the dynamic Alexander Fehling as Goethe have real chemistry, but the film’s most passionate scenes are those after the duo’s rain-soaked love-making, when Lotte must choose between romance and bread and butter, her heart and the good of her family. Stölzl delicately captures the development of Lotte’s complex feelings for her lover and her fiancée, aided by Stein’s and Bleibtreu’s emotionally transparent performances. Meanwhile, Jerusalem is suffering from his own unrequited love, and responds in the manner befitting sturm und drang.

Stölzl throws it away at the end with a scene of a defeated Goethe being brought back to town by his condescending dad, only to learn from the riotous crowd blocking their coach that Lotte had secretly published his manuscript about their romance. Suddenly he’s famous! And happy! One wonders how this character could possibly be Goethe! Not only that, but we read in a postscript that The Sorrows of Young Werther led to a spike in suicides. It would have been far better had it ended in Wetzlar.