By Clio McConnell
“Young Goethe in Love” takes us to picturesque 18th century Germany, where the boys are clever and passionate and the girls…wear corsets. The story follows youthful Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Romantic poet celebrated as Germany’s Shakespeare, as he experiences first love and first loss. With the pastoral charm of “Pride and Prejudice” and the literary/historical lyricism of “Shakespeare in Love,” “Young Goethe” reminds us what it’s like to be caught up in a good old-fashioned love story.
Alexander Fehling (“Inglourious Basterds”) stars as young Johann in an emphatic performance. The poet’s life is an emotional roller-coaster, but Fehling manages to make the ride thrilling rather than nauseating. The son of a stodgy lawyer, Johann wants nothing more than to become a published writer; instead, his father (Henry Hübchen) insists that he sit for the bar exam, so that he may make a living for himself.
As the movie begins, we find the charming Goethe Jr. on his way to this very examination, which he fails spectacularly. Unfazed by this failure, Johann is still convinced, despite his father’s nay-saying, that he can make a name for himself with his pen. Hoping to reform his wayward son, Goethe Sr. exiles Johann to a bucolic law court.
When he arrives at his new post, Johann is labeled an ingrate, and as such is treated with contempt by his superior, the stiff-lipped Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu).
One night at the local dance hall, Johann runs into Charlotte “Lotte” Buff (played by the delightful Miriam Stein). The poet finds himself suddenly filled with wine and enchanted by the presence of this poor country “bumpkin.” Their flirtation becomes friendship, and soon escalates to something more once Johann and Lotte realize their mutual attraction.
Unfortunately this young love hits a snag when Lotte’s father arranges her engagement to Albert Kestner, Johann’s boss. For the sake of providing for her family, Lotte is forced to accept this proposal, unbeknownst to Johann. Meanwhile, in his ignorance, young Goethe is becoming friends with his romantic rival, even giving Kestner advice on how to pop the question.
This ironic plot twist—though somewhat predictable—is what makes this film (written by Christoph Müller, Philipp Stölzl, and Alexander Dydyna) so stirring. Though the Johann-Lotte storyline is the one we’re supposed to root for, the relationship between Kestner and Lotte is almost equally adorable. Where Johann is intense and imaginative, Albert is steadfast and content. Even while we know that Kestner is stealing Johann’s girl, we can’t help but admit that a friendship between the two men would be welcome. In true Shakespearean form, this dilemma is a somewhat less tragic version of the Romeo vs. Paris dichotomy.
The literary awareness of the screenwriters—along with the brilliant performances of the actors in the love triangle—give the movie a poignant edge not often found in romantic fiction nowadays. Expertly blending love and comedy with despair and tragedy, “Young Goethe In Love” could very well be a romantic drama for the ages.
Clio is a staff writer. Contact her at email@example.com