It seems only appropriate that “Young Goethe in Love,” a biopic of the early years of the Teuton writer most clearly associated with Sturm und Drang and Romanticism, should be largely fictitious, occasionally tempestuous and, of course, very romantic. As its English-language title indicates, Philipp Stoelzl’s yarn is clearly modeled on “Shakespeare in Love.” But though it lacks that film’s delirious wordplay, this German cousin is well plotted and impressively mounted. Pic did decent local biz, but U.S. distrib Music Box will probably have a tough time convincing U.S. auds that a German period film can be light and diverting.
Deviating significantly from historical fact, the film has dashing young Goethe (Alexander Fehling) failing his bar exams in 1772, which leads his stern, poetry-hating father (Henry Huebchen) to send him to the sleepy town of Wetzlar, where he’s made a clerk at a county court. His immediate boss is Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), the fussy but ambitious prosecutor. (The real Goethe already had some experience as a lawyer when he arrived in Wetzlar and was Kestner’s equal, not his underling.)
Dragged to a dance by his overly sensitive roommate, Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), Goethe bumps into the pretty — and pretty drunk — Lotte (Miriam Stein), a fiercely independent spirit and, much to Goethe’s delight, a drama fanatic. A stormy secret affair develops, and grows more complicated when Kestner, unbeknownst to Goethe, starts wooing Lotte with the help of the fair maiden’s father (Burghardt Klaussner), a penniless widower who thinks the well-off Kestner a very suitable party for his eldest.
Plotting in the pic’s second half not only follows the stories of the competing lovers, who in the meantime have become friends, but also cleverly weaves in a third storyline that becomes increasingly entangled in the other two, and finally serves as the initial inspiration for Goethe’s literary breakthrough, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Though the novella’s success translates into something of a happy ending, pic’s heart lies in the almost impossible love affair between Goethe and Lotte, which is refreshingly in tune with the period’s artistic ideals (if not actual customs) and Goethe’s later literary persona.
While Stoelzl is clearly borrowing from other historical flights of fancy, such as “Amadeus” and “Cyrano de Bergerac,” along with “Shakespeare in Love,” the helmer and fellow screenwriters Christoph Mueller and Alexander Dydyna expertly mold these elements to fit the characters and situations’ own requirements, and expertly alternate romance, humor and drama without losing their grip on the characters and their dilemmas.
German up-and-comer Fehling, who had a bit part in “Inglourious Basterds,” here gets to expand on the romantic-period-hero role he first got a taste of in “Buddenbrooks”; he not only delivers the required freshness and energy, but is convincing in the dramatic scenes, without which the entire pic would fall apart (given that auds will be looking at the young character with the benefit of hindsight). Though her part is much less developed, Stein is Fehling’s equal, while the three older men, led by a cast-against-type Bleibtreu, are all respectable.
Editing by Sven Budelmann keeps pic’s rhythm pacey, while Ingo L. Frenzel’s score of whirling violins and clarinets adds another dash of energy. Production and costume designs seem inspired not only by the work of Romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, but also by Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran’s work on Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” in the way the pic seamlessly blends pragmatic, lived-in (rather than dazzling) furnishings and duds.