Judge P.S. Colbert also sprach Zarathustra!
"Goethe. Our Shakespeare; better than Shakespeare!"—Professor Renate Von Keudell
Germany's bard—long the subject of academic tributes in the manner of stuffy critical analyses, ponderous lectures, and bronze statues—gets the Twilight treatment. Forget about the Teutonic titan of letters responsible for Faust, Prometheus, and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, not to mention fathering literature's Sturm und Drang movement. As a silver-screen icon, Goethe—played by Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds)—oozes callowness and puppy-eyed yearning; a romantic soul kept prisoner, his poetic endeavors thrown aside by his lawyer father (Henry Hübchen), who insists that young Johann follow in his footsteps.
As the curtain parts…
Facts of the Case
"1772 Johann Goethe is 23 and studies law. He talks a lot and drinks no less…"
After failing his doctoral examination with a flourish, young Goethe is summarily expelled from Strasbourg and sent by his father to apprentice as a law clerk in Wetzlar, ("that God-forsaken backwater?!") where he comes under the thumb of stern prosecutor Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu, Run Lola Run).
The work is arduous, exacting and unending. Goethe shares a desk with shy, stammering Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch) and the pair become fast friends. Out one night at an otherwise desultory country dance, Goethe bumps into the lovely Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a little the worse for wear from drink. After she christens his jacket with red wine, the two engage in some saucy banter, exchange smoky looks, and declare their dislike for one another, just like in Elvis movies.
They will meet again…and again…and their antagonism turns into attraction.
Meanwhile, young Goethe's work situation is improving. The flinty Kestner goes from exhibiting grudging appreciation for his new charge to embracing him as a friend, when Goethe counsels him (ala Cyrano De Bergerac) about how to woo the woman he fancies with the right words of love. Coincidentally, the woman Kestner has his cap set for is none other than Lotte herself, whose widowed and impoverished father (Burghart Klaußner, The Reader) is trying to marry off to a wealthy suitor in order to save the family (including Lotte's seven younger siblings) from losing their home and falling into abject poverty.
Complications naturally ensue.
I started getting that sinking feeling just minutes into Young Goethe in Love.
I came aboard full of excitement and anticipation, as director Philipp Stözl's last feature, North Face—a daring and ultimately ill-fated attempt by two German soldiers to scale the treacherous Eiger mountain in 1936,—was a truly exhilarating, revelatory experience. What's more, I was pleased to see that Stözl was reuniting with cinematographer Kolja Brandt and editor Sven Budelmann, two key elements in that film's ultimate success.
The trio's immense talent is on display from the beginning here, but for what purpose? To execute a brilliantly choreographed, photographed, and edited ballet devoted to showcasing Goethe writing his law professors a dirty message in the snow? In fact, showcasing seems very much what young Goethe is all about. He's constantly darting across courtyards and streets, leaping into and out of the way of others, while the rest of the actors and extras seem resigned to watch him, and react to his follies.
This only gets worse after Goethe meets Lotte, who joins him in the center ring. Soon enough, Jerusalem and Lotte's sister Anna (Linn Reusse) take their place as active spectators in this love affair, constantly on tap to discuss, encourage, and react to the dynamics of Goethe and Lotte's romantic situation.
After a protracted separation, simmering juices boil until Goethe and Lotte ride across the great, forested divide in order to reach each other as the orchestra swells…
This pair, costumes and powdered wigs aside, are remarkably contemporary. Take for example the scene where Goethe and Lotte duck into some ancient castle ruins to get out of the rain. Just soaked enough to emanate a certain amount of body heat, but in no danger of catching their deaths, the pair steal furtive glances at each other while a grand piano tinkles in the background.
"Tell me," Lotte says. "Wouldn't this be the moment?"
"Which moment?" Goethe asks.
"The one where you kiss me."
And kiss they do! For a purportedly shy couple sharing their first ever buss, these two know how to suck face for the camera; expertly choreographed to open and shut their eyes, and using just enough tongue to suggest passion but not vulgarity. And then…well, apparently they felt the pressure of only 102 minutes to fully define the limits of their relationship. So let's just say they went straight for the finish line.
Speaking of time, this climax arrives almost exactly at the halfway point of the film. Amazingly, from this point forward, Young Goethe in Love makes a revolutionary change in rhythm, tone, and plot destination! What emerges is not only a different film, but a much superior one, with grace, maturity, and high emotional stakes.
In order to protect against spoilers, I'll go no further in detailing the story, but I'd be remiss not to mention it's the emergence of several key supporting performances that bring this tale to its full flower. The best performance by far comes from Bleibtreu, whose consistently skilled turns in films of the last decade (In July, Soul Kitchen, The Baader-Meinhof Complex) have elevated him to the top rank of German cinema. Though his exposure to mainstream American audiences has been limited to small roles in Speed Racer and Munich, English speaking viewers are well-advised to brave some subtitles in order to discover a young actor every bit as versatile and exciting onscreen as Depp and DiCaprio.
Presented in standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Young Goethe in Love looks tremendous. Audiophiles are given the choice between Dolby 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, both of which do very nicely with the original German soundtrack. English subtitles are available for those who need them. Music Box has included a pair of interesting featurettes on the making of the film, in addition to both the domestic and international theatrical trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though much of what transpires throughout Young Goethe in Love has basis in fact, this story is just that: a story, for entertainment purposes only. High school and college students hoping a quick screening of this film will help bluff their way through a Goethe exam or essay have been warned.
I feel an obligation to make clear that despite its rocky start, I grew to accept (if not totally forgive) Young Goethe in Love's early cutesy excesses, and came out of this cinematic experience with true admiration for all that it accomplishes. No less than Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has predicted a crossover to international stardom for Alexander Fehling, and I whole-heartedly agree; he's got the talent and charisma warranting such attention. Ditto for his female counterpart, Miriam Stein. This pair has more than proved worth watching, so keep your eyes peeled!
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Studio: Music Box Films
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