There are many reasons to go see co-writer/director Philipp Stölzl’s Young Goethe in Love. Much of Young is a “movie movie:” A highly entertaining, well told, rip roaring yarn full of romance, humor and adventure. The lush, stylish cinematography of this period piece transports audiences back to late 18th century Germany with an optical opulence suffused with what we Yanks like to call “Old World charm.” This biopic is in the Amadeus and Shakespeare In Love mode, and viewers unfamiliar with that other Wolfgang — Johann Woflgang von Goethe (Alexander Fehling) — will learn much about the post-Renaissance Man, who wrote the masterpiece Faust. This German film with subtleties and subtitles also has profound messages about the creative process, what it means to be an artiste, parental approval, family, true love and more, all depicted in a most enjoyable fashion.
Young begins with the aspiring poet/playwright/novelist being straitjacketed into a legal career, as the 23-year-old’s early avante garde writing is rejected by publishers and Goethe is pressured to please his father, a stern attorney (played by Henry Hubchen, who was the only East German to be nominated for an Oscar, for his role in 1974’s Jakob, the Liar). After rather flamboyantly flunking the bar at Leipzig, Goethe leaps to a remote provincial court, courtesy of his strings pulling, well connected father. There Johann apprentices under the tutelage of Albert Kestner, a rather tough taskmaster (Moritz Bleibtrau, who – appropriately — played Joseph Goebbels in 2010’s Jew Suss: Rise and Fall). Alas, to paraphrase Jackson Browne, our man Johann doesn’t want to be a lawyer in – or out – of love.
While clerking at the city state of Wetzlar Goethe encounters Lotte Buff, portrayed by Miriam Stein, who resembles Debra Winger and is reasonably physically attractive, although no great beauty. However, Johann is initially attracted to Lotte because she has a sonorous singing voice and shows herself to be quite spirited. He woos her and finds that the literate Lotte encourages his artistic self to create, instead of shackling himself to a barrister’s bench. As they young lovers discover their true inner selves, Young includes one of the sexiest lovemaking scenes to grace the screen in recent movie memory.
However, Johann is not the only suitor attracted to the free spirited songbird. As in most love stories, the lovers are faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles blocking their romance. The penniless law clerk must contend with a wealthier, more powerful rival for Lotte’s attentions. Out of the emotional cauldron of this eternal triangle emerged Goethe’s immortal The Sorrows of Young Werther (which went on to become a wildly successful bestseller, number one on The Leipzig Times’ Top 10 list).
Young makes a sharp detour from its sexy, witty course with a dramatic second act full of sturm und drang. Will this film, unlike The Sorrows of Young Werther, have a happy ending? And how factual is this biopic? What Lotte says about the book her romance with Goethe inspired also rings true for this ebullient film: “It’s more than the truth. It is poetry.”
The dashing, handsome Fehling portrays Goethe with great panache, playfulness and pathos. Stein, as Lotte, likewise displays verve, winsomeness and an early feminist yearning to be free and to bask in the glow of love for love’s sake. With only his third feature Stölzl is revealing himself to be a masterful craftsman. His 2008 North Face was a well made, clever anti-Nazi feature about mountaineering; shrewd because Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a name for herself in “Mountain” movies before she directed Third Reich agitprop.
In Young, Lotte performs an act of true love and the film ends on a Rocky-like note of triumph that all artists dream of, but few ever attain. However, to find out how Lotte and Johann’s affair turns out, and what, exactly, that triumphant denouement is, you’ll just have to see Young yourself, dear reader.
I left the screening room feeling lighthearted and happy to be alive. It did my soul good, without having to make a Faustian bargain with the devil to do so. The best reason to experience Young Goethe in Love is simply because you like yourself and want to treat yourself to a great time. Why? Because you deserve it, dearest viewer.