Home Video Hovel- Young Goethe in Love, by Kyle Anderson
The old adage should be, “Truth is boringer than fiction.” The problem with making a biopic of any sort is that they tend to either be too hampered with facts, making the story seem stale or detached, or they take too many liberties and the story is no longer believable. There really is a fine line between a story and things just happening in sequence. This is why I’m so torn about the 2010 German film, Young Goethe in Love, directed by Philipp Stӧlzl. By all accounts, this is a very faithful adaptation of the young adult life of poet, writer, artist, scientist, and all around polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe up to the publication of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. This isn’t a bad movie by any means, in fact it’s quite enjoyable, but there is so much that the audiences is expected to take as read via only a few short lines or encounters and this is why biopics are so irritating.
The eponymous Goethe is played by Alexander Fehling (the ill-fated young father from Inglourious Basterds) as he attempts to become a poet. His father, a rather harsh man, wants him to be a lawyer and at the beginning of the film, the free-spirited Goethe fails his law exam most spectacularly. As punishment, he is sent to a sleepy provincial court to reform. He is looked down upon and generally ridiculed by his peers and his boss, the court counselor Albert Kestner (Mortiz Bleibtreu). While at a local party, Goethe meets a fiery young lass named Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein) who spills wine on his jacket and later he hears her singing beautifully at church. He becomes enthralled with the farm girl and begins the process of courting her, using his poetry to win her over. At the same time, Kestner begins courting the girl as well, as he’s very rich and could provide for the entire Buff family. Goethe helps Kestner with his proposal, not realizing that it’s the same woman with whom he is deeply in love. When things are revealed, it leads Goethe down a rather dark path that eventually leads to him writing his seminal work while in jail.
Okay. This all happened in real life. It’s fairly public knowledge in Germany, because aside from the name “Werther,” the book The Sorrows of Young Werther is as autobiographical as it gets. As soon as it was published, everybody knew of Goethe’s sad love affair with Lotte Buff, a thing which he would later lament. However, because it’s so well known, the filmmakers can take almost no liberties with it, aside from some of the lighter moments. For instance, there is a character in the film named Wilhelm, which is also the name of the person to whom all of Werther’s letters get written in the novel. In real life, Wilhelm Jerusalem was a colleague of Goethe who committed suicide over his love of a woman. This series of events is depicted in the film, however we don’t spend enough time with Wilhelm in the latter part of the story to be truly affected by his suicide. Yes, it’s sad because he was a nice character and friend to Goethe, but we barely even know he’s in love with anybody before he kills himself over her. In the truth of things, it was Wilhelm’s suicide which lead to the character of Werther killing himself in the novel which, we’re told, is what Goethe planned to do himself. His death leads to Goethe’s further despondency, but in story terms, this could have been accomplished without him. But, because everyone knows Wilhelm was a guy who killed himself, he has to be in the movie.
Aside from the inherent problems with adapting such a well known story, there are definitely some bright spots. Firstly, the costumes and locations are absolutely gorgeous. The beauty of Europe is that it’s old. We really feel like the film takes place in the 1770s simply because Germany has such beautiful old buildings and landscape actually from the period. I would assume very few exterior sets were built and the only thing needed was dressing. The costumes are lavish yet lived-in. They look like clothing people are wearing and not merely brand new costumes worn by actors. Secondly, the cinematography is quite good. There’s a very strange quality to the actual picture that I can’t quite explain, but the framing and screen pictures are lovely, throughout.
The other, and quite frankly main, reason to watch this film is for the performances by Fehling as Goethe and Stein as Lotte. While most of the story seems by the numbers, we real feel the emotion of these characters through these two actors, which is exactly what you want from a love story. Fehling gives Goethe a charm and sympathy that is surely hard to convey in such an overly sensitive, quite maudlin character. Stein is just brimming with exuberance and really pops on the screen. When she’s sad later in the film, the audience feels it and I was more affected by her unhappiness than Goethe’s. If the real Lotte was as enticing and engaging as the one portrayed in the film, it’s no wonder Goethe nearly killed himself for her. I guess maybe that isn’t what you want in a woman. Still, both actors are excellent and, if they weren’t as good as they are, the movie plainly would not work.
My real problem with movies of this nature is that no risks can be taken. Yes, Goethe’s an interesting enough person that a decent film could be made of his life, but since so much of this particular portion of his adulthood is so well known to the greater German public, the entire movie seems like a foregone conclusion. I am reminded of something like Milos Forman’s Amadeus that is a true story but told in a very different and wholly cinematic way. This is a story we’ve heard a bunch of times but one that can’t be altered because it’s true. While not a bad film by any means, it is enjoyable, upon finishing it I couldn’t help saying “Yeah, that was fine.”