If I were making a movie that was in any way derivative, I’d try to camouflage the fact. But Music Box decided to capitalize on the association, changing the original title (“Goethe!”) to “Young Goethe in Love” in an obvious attempt to entice fans of “Shakespeare in Love.”
How close are they? Well, if this were a romance series—with films like “Young Hawthorne in Love” or “Young Keats in Love” waiting in the wings—I’d say they were close enough to be cut from the same cloth, but with just enough variation to make them interesting.
Like “Shakespeare in Love,” this 2010 costumed romantic dramedy features an energy-filled protagonist who is determined to make it as a writer but hasn’t yet found his voice, style, or subject matter. What he has found is love, and love is never uncomplicated. Even when love isn’t unrequited, the pain is the same when the results leave each of our young heroes feeling jilted—but with the consolation that here, finally, was something to write about. It’s as Hemingway quipped, “Let’s say that [an aspiring writer] should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”
Fans of historical dramas usually want to know two things: is it atmospheric, and is it accurate? This German production does a nice job of presenting a colorful and believable Germany in the late 1760s and early 1770s, when, in fact, Goethe studied law in Leipzig and worked as a licensee in Frankfort. But “Young Goethe in Love” takes even more liberties with the truth than “Shakespeare in Love,” which was a work of speculative fiction based on letters. If you’ve read any of the main biographies, “Young Goethe” will strike you as a work of fancy that’s loosely based on the life of the young German romantic poet. The thing of it is, “Young Goethe in Love” is entertaining enough that viewers may well find themselves willing to believe the whole thing is true. And after all, if E.M. Forster was correct that “Fiction is truer than history, for it is in fiction and drama that we can understand the hidden life of the characters,” then what does it matter?
At least one touchstone remains intact: the reference to Goethe’s debut novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was published in 1774, and the near-fatal attraction that Goethe had for a young woman at about the same time as he was inspired to write this. So the screenwriters cleverly combined elements from that first short epistolary novel with biographical facts in order to create a work of fiction that may well be “truer than history”—at least as it attempts to intertwine the story of a romantic poet and the romanticism that fed him and others at this point in the world’s history.
Alexander Fehling stars as young Goethe, whose father insists that it’s time he gave up his silly poetry and Shakespearian fantasies and find real work as a lawyer. We see him acting up in (and flunking out of) law school, then sent to a provincial court, where he finds work as a legal clerk opposite a likable stutterer named Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch). Soon Goethe catches the eye of his superior, Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreau). At the same time, he becomes enthralled with a young woman he sees on the street and singing in a church choir. The plot follows his attempts to win over Lotte (Miriam Stein), while at the same time trying to help Kestner and Wilhelm with their own relationship troubles . . . and, of course, writing away.
The cinematography by Kolja Brandt relies on a lot of eye-level medium shots, and that level of comfort and unobtrusiveness gives “Young Goethe in Love” an unassuming, naturalistic look in which narrative can flourish without style getting too much in the way. Likewise, director Philipp Stölzl strikes a comfortable pacing that feels smooth and organic.
I wouldn’t say that the script is packed as full of clever lines as “Shakespeare in Love,” nor does it have the same consistently light tone. Therein lies the main difference. Well, that, star power, and a much bigger budget for “Shakespeare.” But “Young Goethe in Love” looks richer than its relatively modest budget, and the quality of acting feels like the cinematography—completely naturalistic, apart from the Tiggeresque actions of the main character in some key early scenes, as when he appears before a review board.
“Young Goethe in Love” is not rated, but it would probably pull down an R rating here, not for language or violence, but for the one brief glimpse of breast we get when Goethe and his love have a roll in wet leaves.
As I said, “Young Goethe in Love” looks richer than its budget, and the CGI effects layered onto landscapes and streets look not quite seamless but darned good. Colors are natural, skin tones are natural, and there’s a decent amount of detail for a standard-def release. “Young Goethe” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio mostly into play when Ingo Frenzel’s original music plays, because this is a dialogue-filled film. The language is German Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with English subtitles. If you look for a lot of bass, you’ll be looking a long time.
Aside from trailers, the only extras are a 27-minute making-of bonus feature in German with English subtitles (and plenty of shots showing the cameras filming). What cast and crew have to say is mostly situational summary and character descriptions, so the main interest is how they filmed select scenes. Then there’s “The Visual Effects of Goethe,” which is curiously a montage of scenes set to music which shows layers being added and taken away to show how the details were added by Lugundtrug Visuelle Effekte & Animation. It’s only a little over a minute long, but fascinating to see. I wish it were longer.
It’s not on the same level as “Shakespeare in Love,” nor is it as intentionally funny. But “Young Goethe in Love” is still a solid, entertaining historical drama with a similar structure, so fans of “Shakespeare in Love” should receive this one warmly. I would watch it again.