Young Goethe in Love Review

“A Touching German Romance That Blows American Rom-coms Out Of The Water”

October 27th, 2011


Music Box Films

Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten

Grade: A-

Directed By: Philipp Stölzl

Written By: Alexander Dydyna, Christoph Müller, Philipp Stölzl

Cast: Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hübchen

Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 10/27/11

Opens: November 4, 2011

Is Goethe the fellow whose book had launched a thousand suicides? Ironically enough, one of the proofs that a novel has had a profound influence on its audience is its ability to provoke violence (think of Harriet Tubman's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which helped incite the War Between the States and, in the case of this film, Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," which became an influence in Germany's Sturm und Drang movement. Defined as "turbulence and urgency," this movement embraced the telling of passionate, subjective literature, which in turn helped to influence the 19th century Romantic era.

If one were asked to define the aim of "Young Goethe in Love" (German title simply "Goethe!"), one might answer that it portrays the background of the author of "The Sorrows of Young Werther" (German title "Die Lieden des Jungen Werther") But that sterile description would not begin to convey the movie's ability to evoke the passions of two people, the nature of unrequited love without which probably half of all love poetry would not exist. With some terrific performances by the always reliable Moritz Bleibtreu ("The Baader Meinhof Complex"), Alexander Fehling ("Inglourious Basterds") and especially Miriam Stein who is best known in her native land for TV presentations, "Young Goethe in Love" is a brilliant recreation of life in an 18th Century German backwater, filmed in the Eastern provinces of Thuringia and Saxony, a time that unpaved streets, the absence of toilets, the lack of birth control and inability of medical science to prevent boatloads of childbirth deaths helped to make life nasty, brutish and short.

With many shots by Kolja Brandt simulating the tone of a Rembrandt painting, Philipp Stölzl's film takes into the hearts of two lovers, one who too immature to pass his doctoral exam and one who is too poor to marry the man she really loves. Though Goethe is best known for "Faust," which gave rise to Mephistophelean operas, stories, poems and plays like "Damn Yankees," that later work gets not a single mention as writers Alexander Dydyna, Christoph Müller and Philipp Stölzl want us in the audience to focus on the great writer while he is in his early twenties.

Though Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling) was pressured by his father (Henry Hübchen) to enter the field of law, the young man was a poet at heart who, like Harry Potter's creator J.K. Rowling and top writer of legal fiction John Grisham had his early writings rejected by publishers. Goethe is a playful lad, skipping about the university courtyard after flunking his oral exam by writing "Kiss My Arse" in the mud. Sent by his dad to the sticks of Wetzlar to apprentice at the local Supreme Court, he chafes under the directives of his boss, Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), who piles the lad with dozens of files to catalogue. He perks up after meeting free spirit Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), who is taking care of an abundance of siblings left by her dead mother, her father (Burghart Klaussner) scarcely able to support even himself and therefore eager to marry Lotte off to money. If it's just as easy to fall in love with a rich person as a poor one, Goethe and Lotte seem not to have heard that expression as they flirt, fall in love, and (probably fictionalized given the fear of venereal disease, the lack of birth control, and the moral code of the times) they make love in the open air. When unknown to Goethe, the woman sought by Kestner is Goethe's own true love, the stage is set for conflict leading to a duel, which results in Goethe's imprisonment. There by candlelight he pens "The Sorrows of Young Werther" as a series of letters that would eventually be published as a semi-autobiographical novel and become a best seller. (It's available now at for $7.99.)

I don't know if Birgit Hutter's costumes are authentic, but they look striking, even giving the appearance of wear-which adds to the authenticity of this fictionalized, poetic labor of love. Stölzl navigates with ease between frivolous comedy and heart-rending drama, in effect blowing away quite a bit of what passes for romantic movies in the U.S.

Unrated. 102 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

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