NEW YORK — Pitched somewhere between Bright Star and Shakespeare in Love, Philipp Stölzl’s Young Goethe in Love falls close enough to the latter author-based romance to inspire some guilt in any literature student seduced by its charms. Less rigorous art-house audiences though will find it easy to be carried away by a period love story whose appealing leads and German countryside make historical ties almost beside the point.
The film’s awkward title is an improvement over the German one — the exclamatory Goethe! Nevertheless, the hero’s first on-screen appearance invites high-brow ridicule and recommend that what we’re about to see shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Indeed the screenplay uses facts from the author’s life only when they suit its arc, and goes so far as to invent a duel between him and his romantic rival that, in addition to threatening Goethe’s life, occasions a fictional imprisonment and the writing of his breakthrough The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Introducing Johann Wolfgang Goethe (Alexander Fehling) via irreverent antics suggesting an Amadeus copycat, Young Goethe quickly settles down a bit, shuffling the law student and aspiring poet out of a failed academic post and off to a legal job in Wetzlar. Here he bonds with drinking buddy/roommate Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch) and soon meets rosy-cheeked Lotte (Miriam Stein). After spending a chaste day with Lotte’s family and engaging in some rom-com gamesmanship about which will write the other first, the pair shares a first kiss in a rain-soaked ruin, then get naked bodies muddy without being quite brazen enough to offend a middle-school literature teacher.
Unbeknownst to Goethe, his boss — stiff Albert Kestner, played with some depth by German star Moritz Bleibtreu — also fancies Lotte, and given her large family’s financial desperation, she has little choice but to consent when he proposes.
The romantic despair and broken friendships that follow are not so transporting they would inspire any viewer to kill himself in sympathy — famously, Young Werther set off a wave of suicides — so their presentation suffers from the occasional cliché. But Stölzl and his writers don’t overburden the tried-and-true narrative skeleton they’ve borrowed. Before things get maudlin, they offer the inevitable happy ending to this supposed tragedy. If Goethe’s going to be a rock-star author and get to quit his day job, who cares about a little lost love?
Opens: November 4 (Music Box Films)
Production Companies: Senator Film, Deutschfilm
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klaussner, Henry Hubchen
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Screenwriters: Christoph Müller, Philipp Stölzl, Alexander Dydyna
Producers: Christoph Müller, Helge Sasse
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Udo Kramer
Music: Ingo L. Frenzel
Costume designer: Birgit Hutter
Editor: Sven Budelmann
No rating, 104 minutes