So long as one doesn’t take it as a history lesson, “Young Goethe in Love” is a moderately enjoyable period piece. It’s actually no more true to the record than your average Hollywood biopic—which is to say, it’s very loose with the facts. But though Philipp Stolzl doesn’t manage the free-wheeling flamboyance suggested by the original German title, with its exuberant exclamation point, he gives it a genial buoyancy that makes you willing to swallow its historical reworking and simply indulge in its goofy extravagance.
What Stolzl and writing collaborators Christoph Muller and Alexander Dydyna have done is to take Goethe’s admittedly self-referential early work, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” an early masterpiece of the Romantic movement that made him a celebrity in his twenties, and use it as the template for their screenplay (except for its tragic denouement, involving the hero’s suicide—which doesn’t jibe with his long life, of course, though the historical suicide of his friend serves much the same purpose here). Their script adds a great deal of bawdy humor, however, especially in the opening reels, and goes for a floridly romantic tone in the later ones, ending up as mixture of comedy and doomed romance that doesn’t entirely gel. Still, despite the unsteady mixture of tones it’s generally a palatable blend.
When we meet young Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling), he’s a very bad law student who fails his doctoral exam in a big way because of his addiction to writing plays and poetry. When his efforts meet with rejection from the publishers, his fed-up father (Henry Hubchen) sends him to work at a minor court where officious Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu) lords it over the staff. But he soon finds a friend in stuttering colleague Karl Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), who becomes his partner in carousing. But both men fall in love, Jerusalem with a married woman who eventually drops him for her husband—prompting his suicide—and Johann with Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a rambunctious young woman who’s become the replacement for her deceased mother, caring for her brood of younger siblings.
But unknown to him, Lotte’s father (Burghart Klaussner) is arranging the marriage of his daughter to Kestner, and in a nod to “Cyrano” his tongue-tied boss asks the eloquent Johann for help in preparing his proposal to his beloved. Goethe complies and Lotte accepts Kestner’s request for her hand in order to help her family financially. That leads to an embarrassing engagement party where Johann shows up as a suitor to Lotte and Kestner realizes he’s been his rival for her affections. A duel follows, along with legal troubles for Goethe, who pens “Werther” while awaiting trial and is released to find himself a new literary star.
The first third of the picture is a wild affair—or as wild as German filmmakers can get—in which Johann is presented as a sort of Tom Jones character, troublesome, free-spirited and stifled by his job. Meeting Lotte sends him into full love-struck mode, pining over his beloved with the recklessly romantic extravagance his creations (first Werther, then Faust) came to represent. Fehling works hard to suggest the character’s mood swings, but never quite overcomes a certain stiffness that makes Johann seem less the frat-boy reveler turned lovesick swain than a befuddled innocent. But the other cast members fare better. Stein has a charmingly earthy vivacity, Bleibtreu adds some subtle touches to what might have been a stick villain, and Bruch makes an amiable, if doomed, friend.
Visually “Young Goethe in Love” is a widescreen treat, with cinematographer Kolja Brandt taking advantage of the lush locations and the period detail fashioned by production designer Udo Kramer and costume designer Birgit Hutter. A special nod goes to Ingo L. Frenzel’s score, which cannily makes use of themes from Schubert, who of course set some of Goethe’s poems to his music.
If Stolzl ultimately fails to earn that exclamation point in “Goethe!” he does provide an exercise in quasi-biography that’s engaging in an old-fashioned way.