Young Goethe In Love
‘Goethe’: portrait of a tormented artist
Handsomely mounted, impassioned, and intermittently silly, “Young Goethe in Love’’ needs just a twist or two of the screw to turn it into a Monty Python farce or something the “Airplane!’’ boys might have dreamed up in their prime. Actually, the original German title - “Goethe!’’ - sounds like the worst musical ever written, which this movie thankfully is not. What it is is watchable, a thoroughly professional piece of Great Man hackwork that lacks the invention and spirit of its obvious model, “Shakespeare in Love.’’
Credit the movie, at least, for pulling down the marble statuary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s towering man of letters, and replacing it with a post-collegiate screw-up. The gangly young Goethe (Alexander Fehling) is first seen botching his law orals and being castigated by his imperious father (Henry Hübchen) and other Frankfurt fuddy-duddies for spending too much time reading dangerous romantics like Lessing and “Shakesleare.’’ He even fancies himself a poet, to the merriment and scorn of local publishers.
Off Goethe is sent to the backwater of Wetzlar, where his father hopes a law apprenticeship will “cure him of his giddiness.’’ Instead, he meets village girl Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein) and turns moonier than ever. With her wild halo of red hair and wilder gleam in her eye, Stein is the liveliest part of “Young Goethe in Love,’’ and the audience may share Johann’s crush if only because there’s not much else going on in Wetzlar.
The script, by Christoph Müller, Alexander Dydyna, and director Philipp Stölzl, plays fast and loose with the facts, but it has a sharp eye for 18th-century cubicle politics. Goethe contends with law office bullies, bosses, and a fellow lost soul, Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), whose fate will factor into the young writer’s literary breakthrough. Mostly the movie’s a romantic triangle between the hero, his lady love, and Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), Goethe’s immediate superior and a humorless prat who aims to make Charlotte his wife.
Goethe came out of this period with a hit novel, 1774’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther’’ - not, to my knowledge, written in a prison cell as this movie has it - and “Young Goethe in Love’’ has a high old time planting bits from his fiction into the “real life’’ of the film. Charlotte’s nickname for him is “Werther’’ and the dialogue leading to their first bout of outdoor lovemaking has been retrofitted from page to biopic. Straining to contrast the writer’s revolutionary Romanticism with the staid culture it replaced, the film even throws in a drug-trip sequence when Goethe and Wilhelm drop belladonna and cavort with gypsies.
What was Sturm and Drang then veers close to camp and kitsch now. Fehling is likable enough and the film is a cushy tour of its period, down to the costumes, carriages, and ersatz Haydn on the soundtrack. But it’s about an artist whose notions of tormented poetic youth would take decades to become commonplace. The movie, through the miracle of middlebrow tastefulness, renders them cliches from the start.