Friday, November 4, 2011

Storm und drang

Stein and Fehling in Young Goethe in Love
Young Goethe in Love
Directed by Philipp Stölzl
Starring Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein & Moritz Bleibtreu
Released by Music Box Films; opened November 4, 2011

The opening scene of Young Goethe in Love is a tip-off. A breathless student runs into the room where he is to have his doctoral exam and immediately does a pratfall at the table where his poker-faced grading trio sits. What is this, Amadeus? Will Philipp Stölzl’s lighthearted film also turn the great German writer into a frivolous goofball who just happens to be an incredible genius?

Admittedly, the movie isn’t off to a good start when, after failing the exam because he’s been too busy writing his inferior poetry than putting in the hard work of studying that marks a real doctoral candidate, Goethe goes outside and, in the snowy university quad below the examining room’s windows--where those examiners can see--he “writes” two words in the snow: LICKE MICH! or, in equally colorful English, KISS MY ASS!

The dumbing down of a revered figure of world literature thankfully doesn’t continue unabated for the next 100 minutes, so this isn’t simply “Goethe for Dummies.” However, the film’s title has been changed from the original German, which simply exclaims Goethe! Apparently, those unfamiliar with Goethe need to know that the movie includes youthful romance; whether that gets any more fannies in the seats is problematic.

The new title at least is in keeping with the movie’s extreme emotional swings that approximate the storm und drang plot of Goethe’s international literary breakthrough, the semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Director-writer Stölzl and co-writers Christoph Müller and Alexander Dydyna dramatize Goethe’s affair with Lotte, a beautiful young singer. Of course, he has no chance to win her hand since her widowed father--up to his ears in debt and raising several kids alone--sets her up with Albert, a moneyed court councilor who happens to be law clerk Goethe’s boss.

After they meet, much screen time is taken up by their pining for each other in the best/worst ultra-romantic tradition: they sit around waiting for other to make the first movie (i.e., write the first letter), then when each decides to visit the other, guess what? They ride right past each other! When they finally catch up with each other later that day, they take a stroll in the forest, where it starts raining, so they get soaked and find a convenient ruined house and make love right there on the floor. Then they both get sick and are confined to separate beds.

Lotte then becomes engaged to Albert, thanks in part to Goethe, who plays Cyrano to Albert’s Christian by feeding him the heart-fluttering lines that Lotte can’t resist. When the two men realize that they’ve been unwitting rivals, things go from bad to worse for Goethe. First, his best friend, Jerusalem, kills himself after being rebuffed by a married woman who promised that she would leave her husband for him. And secondly, he’s arrested for illegal dueling when Albert (who set it all up to get Goethe out of the way) asks for satisfaction.

This is a world where jilted young men fire pistols into their heads because they are afflicted by “morbid melancholia.” Luckily for Goethe (and generations of readers and scholars), he does not pull the trigger when he attempts suicide once he realizes Lotte is forever out of each. Instead, he finds inspiration and, in direct contradiction of everyone who wished he would give up writing his failed poetry, feverishly pens Werther and becomes world famous, shown in an over-the-top finale of celebrity adulation reminiscent of the worst excesses of Ken Russell’s garish biopics like The Music Lovers.

Director Stölzl’s romantic costume drama has a lovely visual palette thanks to Kolija Brandt’s camerawork: though gorgeous, it is subtly muted to avoid the obvious pretty postcard shots such material ordinarily demands. The energetic cast is headed by Alexander Fehling’s strappingly handsome and dashing Goethe, Miriam Stein’s fresh-faced and perky Lotte and Moritz Bleibtreu’s hilariously clueless Albert.

It won’t be close to Amadeus in popularity, but if this often ridiculous romance gets one viewer read Goethe, then it will have served its purpose.

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