Review: ‘Young Goethe in Love’

"It's just as gorgeously shot, just as clever, just as frothy and dynamic as the period pieces of 15-20 years ago."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

I want you to cast your mind back to 1993 for a moment. What kind of movies were you watching? Well, besides Hard Target and Super Mario Bros. 1993 saw, if you'll recall, the beginning of a huge influx of period dramas, usually low budget, but possessed of big stars (or soon-to-be big stars), and produced by Miramax. For a long time there, indie period dramas and unjustly overlooked foreign movies were the central wheelhouse of Miramax films. You had films like Orlando, Much Ado About Nothing, Restoration, Ridicule, Remains of the Day, and even Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. These movies continued through the whole decade, and many of these films – thanks to their quality, but also thanks to Miramax's eel-slick advertising blitzes – were nominated for Academy Awards, and Shakespeare in Love even won in 1998. I kind of miss this particular brand of completely earnest, incredibly well shot, and historically accurate period drama. They are few and far between these days. Sure you still have the occasional Bright Star or The Last Station, but how many of you saw Bright Star or The Last Station? These days period dramas seem to bear some sort of gimmicky imprimatur, or some kind of odd stunt casting. I'm thinking of the films of Joe Wright here.

So it was actually kind of refreshing to sit in a darkened room, and watch Philipp Stölzl's German language film Young Goethe in Love (originally titled Goethe!), as it seems to have slipped through a time vortex from 1993, untouched by modern-day sensibilities. It's just as gorgeously shot, just as clever, just as frothy and dynamic as the period pieces of 15-20 years ago. It seems to have an actual interest in Goethe, and doesn't bother to distract itself with oblique revisionist history or cockeyed historical theory (Anonymous anyone?). Also, as it follows the story of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it is intellectual catnip for bibliophiles; you should attend the film with someone who has read a lot of Goethe, and watch them snicker at all the cute, subtle in jokes. Young Goethe in Love has all kinds of great things going for it.

Goethe's famed book The Sorrows of Young Werther is, to this day, a scripture-like tome for the heartbroken, vaguely suicidal young man. It's also, as many may know, largely autobiographical, “Werther” being the nickname that Goethe's own country girlfriend gave him in the early stages of their courting. The film tells that true story. The young Wolfgang (a handsome Alexander Fehling), kind of a flighty know-nothing, fails his medical exam at the film's outset. Wolfgang would rather be a poet. His stern father (Henry Hübchen), declaring that he'll never be much of anything, forces him to take a job as a law clerk miles away in the country. Wolfgang hates country life, and is such a light-hearted soul that he immediately rejects the seriousness of this new office, preferring to sneak out at night to party. Goethe is played like a particularly happy privileged frat boy of any era. His best friend at school is Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) who seems to have been specially bred to be a wingman.

The two friends are distracted from their studies one morning by some beautiful church choral music. It is in that church where Wolfgang will fall instantly in love with the fiery redhead Lotte Buff (Charlotte from Werther), and the two of them begin a tentative romance. Lotte (Miriam Stein, who looks more than a little bit like Sean Young) is very poor, but likes to read, and is drawn, like Wolfgang, to bitter, tragic operas. About halfway through the movie, the two of them do indeed have sex. Outdoors. In the rain. I know this paragraph may make the film seem clichéd or familiar to any fans of historical romance, but I assure you, Stölzl's capable directing keeps the pacing brisk and the tone surprisingly light.

Indeed, for an author whose famed tragic work was known to cause a spate of suicides when it was published, Young Goethe in Love is actually fun and funny and frothy pretty much the whole way through. It can be a mistake of a lot of doomed romance stories to lean a little too closely on the portentous ending of the romance, rather than letting us know why these people were in love to begin with. Goethe doesn't have the chewy, angsty, serious-faced kind of romance we've all become used to. He and Lotte smile and giggle and frolic with the best of them. It's only until Goethe's stuffed-shirt boss (a pretty darn good Moritz Bleibtreu) encroaches and successfully weds and ambivalent Lotte in a whirlwind marriage (she and her family really, really needed the money) that the angst begins to creep in. And, yes, just like in Werther, Goethe is eventually in a jail cell, writing his tragic memoirs, and planning on using that gun as soon as he's done.

There are a few cute in-jokes for the Goethe scholar: Werther's famous blue coat (which young men at the time took to wearing) was thrown over Goethe's shoulders in a fit of pique. Near the film's end, to escape his misery, Goethe swallows a fistful of belladonna, and watches a puppet show of Doctor Faustus, implying that he would later be inspired to write Faust. I'm not a Goethe scholar, however, so I'm sure there was more that I missed.

This film is beautiful, romantic, frothy, and more fun than you'll expect it to be. The cast is energetic and talented, and Fehling, who even looks a little bit like Geothe's portraits, brings a life and joviality to the angsty writer that I don't ordinarily associate with him. Lotte is cute and sweet, and, while something of a bumpkin, is never stupid or ditzy. It's odd how refreshing it is to see a female lead in a romance that is actually actualized and resolute, and not dumb or emotionally arrested. We can understand why she would necessarily turn Goethe away to take on a marriage on convenience.

Watch the film, then read Faust. You'll feel smarter for both.