From its set design with its swooningly rendered castle towns to its conception of the artist as a genius in search of his audience, Philipp Stölzl’s Young Goethe In Love is so caught up in its own romantic notions (in its embrace of both German Romanticism and the small-r conception of the term) that it never bothers to question the validity of these ideas. Instead, with the exception of that most pernicious of once-fashionable ideals, and the one that the film’s eponymous hero celebrated in his youthful novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the noble suicide, Stölzl’s film takes both Goethe’s genius and the inevitable superiority of the brand of romanticism that marked his early work as a given. There can be little doubt of the former statement, but when the latter is tested out by having the Faust poet do battle against exaggeratedly repressive representatives of rationality or recite lyrics while lounging beneath a lakeside tree with his shirt off, the film’s investment in the more spurious elements of romanticism become telling.
As the English title implies, the film finds our hero both young and in love. (The German title is simply Goethe!; the alternate name no doubt chosen in order to sell the film as another Shakespeare In Love to American audiences.) Set in 1772, the narrative follows the 23-year-old poet (and scholar) manqué (Alexander Fehling) as he’s forced into a dreary position as a law clerk. Of course, the soul-sucking work can’t extinguish our feisty hero’s joie de vivre and he’s soon excelling at his new gig, winning the admiration of his stuffy boss, while wooing the town’s local beauty, Lotte (Miriam Stein). Too bad his boss is also enamored of the young lady and, given his superior financial resources, is in a far better position to win her (and especially her father’s) approval.
What unfolds is a predictably anguished story of true love thwarted by material circumstances, or in the terms dictated by the film, rationality triumphing over romance. The only twist in the formula comes in the fact that Goethe’s two goals—professional and romantic—seem to be at odds, since his continued advancement in the law firm requires him to make no mention of his interest in Lotte, lest he alienate his boss.
But, of course, this is only a seeming contradiction, since Goethe’s real professional calling is as a writer, and in tracking the course of the young artist’s development, Stölzl’s film proves one more tepid biopic about a real life artist that fails to either shed any insight into the artistic process or explain why the subject’s works matter in the first place. No doubt Stölzl and his screenwriting team view the creative project as a magical endeavor, as evidenced by Goethe’s almost unconscious penning of his breakthrough novel while serving a brief stint in jail, but the only thing they really have to say about their subject’s achievement is that he’s able to turn real-life disappointment into art—and, crucially, art that makes money.
This last point is brought home in a final sequence in which, Goethe returning with his father in seeming defeat to his German hometown, he runs into a rowdy crowd which seems more than a little menacing. But not to worry, this isn’t Occupy Frankfurt; it’s the beginnings of Werther-mania, the real-life craze that greeted the publication of Goethe’s breakthrough novel. Too bad the filmmakers use the scene as little more than a chance to stage a valedictory to the great poet. Only an end-of-film title card informing us that the book’s publication led to a wave of copycat suicides puts a damper on the proceedings. Otherwise, the myths of personal expression, monetary success as the inevitable reward for talent, and mystical artistic creation are allowed their unfettered triumph.