Monday, November 26, 2012

Young Goethe in Love (2010)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), one of Germany's greatest authors, is seen by many as an early Romantic, a movement which he later disowned. His bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its themes of rebellion and suicide, inspired the generation of Romantics who were to follow in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Romanticism was characterized by the placing of sentiment above common sense and strong emotions over duty, while relishing the outdoors, exotic cultures, ruined castles and morbid endings, all of which are present to some degree in the 2010 German film Young Goethe in Love. The 2010 film, however, resounds with Germanic practicality and eighteenth century logic as well as the robust joy and hope that come with youth.

The film received poor reviews, which I am glad I did not read beforehand since they might have colored my otherwise favorable impression. Many have compared Young Goethe in Love to Shakespeare in Love, saying that the Goethe movie is an imitation of the popular, Oscar-winning flick. I must admit that I watched the Goethe film without once thinking of Shakespeare in Love. There is no resemblance except for the fact that the heroine must marry against her personal inclinations for practical reasons, which was a frequent occurrence in times past. The story of Goethe and his romance with Lotte Buff is a true one, whereas the plot of Shakespeare in Love is pure fantasy. Furthermore, Young Goethe in Love, a lush and hearty masterpiece, contains subtleties which eluded the Shakespeare movie. Despite the fact that it does not always follow the actual course of Goethe's life, it is historically accurate as far as mannerisms, costumes and settings go. Most importantly, it captures Goethe's exuberant spirit.

According to Variety:
...The film has dashing young Goethe (Alexander Fehling) failing his bar exams in 1772, which leads his stern, poetry-hating father (Henry Huebchen) to send him to the sleepy town of Wetzlar, where he's made a clerk at a county court. His immediate boss is Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), the fussy but ambitious prosecutor. (The real Goethe already had some experience as a lawyer when he arrived in Wetzlar and was Kestner's equal, not his underling.)

Dragged to a dance by his overly sensitive roommate, Jerusalem (Volker Bruch), Goethe bumps into the pretty -- and pretty drunk -- Lotte (Miriam Stein), a fiercely independent spirit and, much to Goethe's delight, a drama fanatic. A stormy secret affair develops, and grows more complicated when Kestner, unbeknownst to Goethe, starts wooing Lotte with the help of the fair maiden's father (Burghardt Klaussner), a penniless widower who thinks the well-off Kestner a very suitable party for his eldest.

Plotting in the pic's second half not only follows the stories of the competing lovers, who in the meantime have become friends, but also cleverly weaves in a third storyline that becomes increasingly entangled in the other two, and finally serves as the initial inspiration for Goethe's literary breakthrough, "The Sorrows of Young Werther." Though the novella's success translates into something of a happy ending, pic's heart lies in the almost impossible love affair between Goethe and Lotte, which is refreshingly in tune with the period's artistic ideals (if not actual customs) and Goethe's later literary persona.
As Roger Ebert says:
Alas, Lotte's father is respectable but poor, and hopes to marry her off to none other than Kestner, Goethe's boss. This Kestner is not a bad man, but he is no Goethe, although at the time Goethe wasn't, either. The triangle leads to misery, a duel and a great deal of trouble. The film's ending is happy only in a technical sense. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose Lotte?

I learn that a great deal of "Young Goethe in Love" is fiction. It's a film with boundless energy, filmed in sunny pastoral settings, gloomy interiors and with authentic-looking sets and costumes. I imagine Goethe himself, an uber-romantic, would enjoy it immensely, although he might not realize it was about himself. 
I beg to differ with Mr. Ebert; I think Goethe would recognize himself, and laugh a great deal, while perhaps shedding a few tears. The tale of a rare love which is lost even as it begins to blossom is a timeless human experience to which many people can relate. Lotte is a nurturing character who, in spite of her passion for Goethe, chooses to marry the man who will be able to help her destitute family. Her nobility of character is timeless and admirable, surpassing the fads of various literary movements, showing that Goethe's heart did not fail him when he chose to love her. Share

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