Young Goethe in Love
Directed by Philipp Stölzl
Young Goethe in Love opens with all of the trappings of youth in rebellion. The young, strapping Johann Goethe (Alexander Fehling) dashes haphazardly through the manicured courtyard of a law school. He’s running late for a law exam, in which, of course, he humiliatingly fails. His exit is met with jeers from more successful peers, and in a gracefully filmed sequence he scrapes the German equivalent of “Kiss My Ass” into of the snow. Scenes like these, in which a young person makes a boisterous outcry against their forced and structured circumstances, are familiar. But the familiarity of the scene in no way leads into a predictable film; rather, it is just the first layer of many. While the film is mostly just about the emotional travails of being young and in love, it explores the realm with a high degree of wit, style and historical consciousness.
The conversations between Goethe and his love interest Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein)—moments that have ruined many a similar film with dripping, debased romanticism—are effectively witty during their courtship and earnest and insightful in their separation after Lotte’s betrothal to another man. While their chemistry has a certain Germanic rigidity, the viewer can tap into the range of Fehling and Stein's emotional expression.
Indeed, Lotte’s arranged marriage, Goethe’s attempted suicide, a pistol duel between Goethe and Lotte’s husband, and even scenes of drunken stupor are enacted with emotional nuance that is sure to provoke sympathy. Goethe and Lotte become more than storied, star-crossed lovers, although Stein’s acting goes further than Fehling’s on that front. Fehling at times seems a bit dazed amidst the contours shaped by the greater breath and sharpness of other performances.
A rich aesthetic sensibility ripens the emotional content of the film. The cinematography is elegant and crisp, and given that the film was shot mostly in actual 18th century buildings rather than on sets, there is a creative use of natural light. The compositions are a bit too ordered at times, but the cinematographer Kolja Brandt loosens the reins at appropriate moments, such as a scene of earthy sexual passion and one of a topsy-turvy street carnival. Style is an occasional topic of conversation in the film, and this preoccupation is matched by elegant, individualized, and historically conscious costumes.
However, the film’s historicity is strained at times. In Lotte and Goethe’s last encounter, Lotte foretells the story of their happy life apart. Goethe is skeptical of any prospect of happiness and she responds that the story “is more than the truth. It is poetry.” While this high valuation of literary pursuits is admirable, it raises some issues with the film’s premise: the supposedly true story that spawned the literary classic The Sorrows of Young Werther. Her utterance unintentionally comes across as whimsical; a very personal moment is rendered impersonal by philosophical pronouncement wanting in originality. Further, it comes across as a catch-all response to any perceived anachronisms or inaccuracies—a apology the film doesn’t need to make. But on the whole, the film effectively balances intentional whimsy and emotional gravity and supplements them with a refined sense of style. It tells a compelling and enjoyable story.
Opens November 4