Was it unrequited love that launched Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s career as a celebrated poet and playwright? That is the implication in director Phillip Stolzl’s new literary period piece, “Young Goethe in Love.”
Set in 1772, we learn that the 23-year-old Goethe (Alexander Fehling) “talks a lot and drinks no less.”After failing his law exams in Frankfurt, Germany, his father banishes him to the not-so-happening Wetzlar, Germany. Working as a legal apprentice, he meets and falls in love with Lotte (Miriam Stein). Smitten with him and his talent as a poet, Lotte’s feelings are mutual.
Tragedy ensues when Lotte’s father forces her to marry Goethe’s boss, Albert (Moritz Bleibtreu), due to financial woes. When it’s discovered that the young couple had consummated their love, Albert challenges Goethe to a duel. Goethe lands in jail. Despondent, he exorcises his despair by writing “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
After marrying Albert, Lotte secretly has Goethe’s novel published. It becomes a huge success as well as a testament to their enduring love.
Fear not. You don’t have to know anything about Goethe to enjoy this romantic romp. Stolzl (“North Face”) seduces his audience with sumptuous German landscapes, a scrumptious score and fine acting. Most importantly, he implies that what we witness on screen shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The film’s structure seems factional, peppered with actual facts and some of invention. It works beyond well.
As a footnote, it’s indicated that the publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was so inspirational, it set off a wave of suicides. But in Stolzl’s version, it doesn’t make sense. In fact, his Goethe seems to care little about losing Lotte once he gains notoriety. So much for true love.
In “Young Goethe in Love,” we see Goethe as a glib young man, obsessed with his first romantic encounter and how the pain of that loss resulted in success. We like this guy. You want to hook up and party with him. It’s almost unimaginable that this feckless chap eventually spent half his life eking out one of the greatest works in German literature — “Faust.”
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