Monday, October 31, 2011

Passionate Germans: Young Goethe in Love

Goethe was the greatest literary celebrity of his time, a veritable Valentino of letters, following the bestselling publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Influential in many ways, its brooding romantic protagonist launched a wave of suicides across Europe. Philipp Stölzl dramatizes the formative events that inspired Goethe’s tragic hero in what could be considered a German Shakespeare in Love, except its story of love denied is largely accepted as fact. Indeed, German romanticism hits the big screen in all its moody glory when Stölzl’s Young Goethe in Love (trailer here) opens this Friday in New York.

Goethe was destined to be a writer, but neither his father nor the German publishing houses agreed at first. Tired of underwriting his bohemianism, the senior Goethe packs off his debauched son for a no-frills internship at the court in Wetzlar, assuming there would be no distractions for him in the provincial backwater. He was wrong. It was there that he met Charlotte Buff, the intended of another, whom Goethe falls hopelessly in love with.

Ironically, Goethe inadvertently acts as Cyrano to his own rival, helping Albert Kestner, his superior at the court, find the right words to propose to Buff. When each rather simultaneously discovers their mutual amorous regard for her, the tragedy begins in earnest for young Goethe/Werther.

While American audiences might not be as familiar with Goethe’s life and canon as their German counterparts, Alexander Fehling’s charismatic turn as the bon vivant undone by passion is easy to relate to. He lives hard and defies authority—all good things for a movie protagonist to do. Likewise, he develops some nice bromantic chemistry with Volker Bruch as Karl Wilhem Jerusalem, Goethe’s even more Wertheresque roommate. Yet, though pleasant enough, it is hard to see Miriam Stein’s Buff inspiring such overwhelming ardor.

Production designer Udo Kramer’s team convincingly recreates the mud and run-down architecture of provincial Eighteenth Century Germany. It might be a dull place, but it is picturesque, particularly the church. In fact, Stölzl shows Buff singing sacred music there, in a lovely scene that celebrates the beauty of the moment for Goethe and Jerusalem, without resorting to cheap kneejerk irony.

Young Goethe is more historical melodrama than high art per se, but it is undeniably smart and literate. Tightly written, it also has a good period feel, without ever getting bogged down in detail. Stölzl keeps it all moving along at a nice pace, while occasionally giving viewers time to appreciate the classy sets and costumes. The net result is quite enjoyable, in a tragically gloomy kind of way. Recommended for fans of historical drama with a twist, Young Goethe opens this Friday (11/4) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.