A charming tale of Faust love
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
Given that "Young Goethe in Love" is loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 18th-century novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," which was casually autobiographical, a more appropriate title may have simply been "Young Love." As in the kind of love that makes birdbrained fools of first-timers, even if the amorous amateur in question has something brilliant - "Faust," maybe? - in his future. But Philipp Stoelzl's German-language film is much more about esprit than history.
To its credit, "Young Goethe" announces its intentions during the opening sequence. Giddy, playful classical music lilts as Johann (Alexander Fehling) bumbles his way through a failed dissertation and then, fed up, leaves a pointed message in the snow with his boot. This Goethe is flamboyantly nutty and less a Renaissance man than a little rascal.
After flunking out of school and failing as a writer, Goethe is sent away by his father to apprentice at a rural court, where instructors have been told to cure him of poetry. While he excels at law, he also gets sidetracked by Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), daughter of a financially strained widower, who has found herself in the position of unofficial matriarch to a bevy of siblings. With wild red hair and an equally unruly personality, not to mention a love for the arts, she is Johann's perfectly quirky match.
If only her father hadn't promised her hand to another, someone rich enough to take care of the whole massive brood. Oh, the agony.
It would all be too trite to bear if the story weren't so well paced and the two leads so darn adorable. If things slowed down, audience members might find the time to consider that they've already seen this story before. But the quick clip - along with Fehling's comical facial expressions, Stein's rosy aplomb and the ambient jauntiness - ensures that the proceedings remain consistently charming.
The movie takes a somewhat unexpected turn for the macabre after a curiously drugged-out scene involving "magic drops." However, we all know how this one turns out: He may or may not get the girl, but he's going on to acclaim. The curative property of words can be just the thing for the brokenhearted. International fame doesn't hurt, either.
It's difficult to believe that the genius behind "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship" could have been such an utter goofball. And that's probably because he wasn't. But if you set your expectations for a minor work about adoration rather than a masterpiece of a biopic, "Young Goethe in Love" may prove an amusing diversion.