I do have an affection for period movies (see my review of Mozart’s Sister), but they need to offer something broader to say about today’s society to hold any interest (again, see my review of Mozart’s Sister). Or be as brilliantly entertaining as that other Mozart movie, Milos Foreman’s Amadeus from 1984.
Young Goethe in Love offers neither of those aspects. It follows Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling), the late 18th century German writer who would gain fame ever-lasting for one of the greatest works about a man’s deal with the devil, Faust. But this young Goethe proves a tough subject to care about in his pre-fame career as a muck-about lawyer, as depicted in this movie. I do not know much about Goethe, having only read Faust as part of the required readings of a Romance and Language class during my undergrad studies, so anything I have learned of Goethe’s biography, I learned from Young Goethe in Love.
Prior to Faust, it seems Goethe suffered one rejection after another from publishers for his romantic poetry. Meanwhile, he flunked out of law school, but his well-connected father (Henry Hübchen) found him a job working at a court in a small town, anyhow. It soon becomes apparent Goethe has not changed his ways, as he finds a drinking buddy in a co-worker (Volker Bruch). After both spend a night out on the town, they are found passed out in their quarters by their superior. During his night out, however, Goethe will meet Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein), the love who will inspire his first great work, the Sorrows of Young Werther.
It takes a while for anything to happen in the film by Philipp Stölzl. There is dancing, drinking, horseback riding, skinny dipping, fencing and dueling. The design, including costume and sets, show a high production value. It’s all nice stuff that will keep many a period-movie fan interested. But despite Goethe’s conflict with his father and his superiors and the flirtation with Charlotte, the real drama of feeling something at stake for these characters does not happen until an hour into the movie, long after one should stop caring about the proceedings.
Charlotte, one of many girls in a huge family struggling to make ends meet, finally falls for Goethe once he recites his poetry to her. But, it turns out, her father (Burghart Klaußner) would prefer to see her marry the much more stable and well-established Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), Goethe’s superior at the court. Though the drama picks up here, it is too little too late. About a half-hour later, the film’s all too neat and tidy resolution pops like the bubble of effervescent fizz that this movie feels like.
The acting is sincere, but it all feels as if one predictable dot is being attached to another, and everyone is following the motions. The film looks great, despite the drab color palette, but it will take more than a candlelit world of nice design to get the audience emotionally and curiously invested. That said, those looking for a nicely dressed piece of period filmmaking with a romantic story at its heart, who also do not mind the lack of deeper motivations, might find something in Young Goethe in Love to pass the time with.
It’s not like you go to a film entitled Young Goethe in Love, known in its native Germany simply as Goethe!, for insight into its titular author. This is as much a biopic as Shakespeare in Love was one on William Shakespeare. But there is an inherent problem of Goethe’s relevance to the English-speaking crowd as an icon of romance. This film does little, if any favors to make this romantic side of Goethe rise above the shadow of Faust, a work more synonymous with the name Goethe. A smarter labyrinth of a movie could have been brewed out of that, but it would have called on some immense skills from a director, who here is only concerned about a little love story that has been told many times over already.
Young Goethe in Love is unrated, runs 102 minutes, and opens today, Friday, Dec. 16, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It is in German with English subtitles. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. It expands to the Tower Theater in Miami on Dec. 30 and then, in Broward County, at the Cinema Paradiso, on Jan. 3. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the movie’s trailer).