How does a moviemaker legitimately portray the life of a great artist? The question is in the air these days with the release of "Anonymous," which posits Shakespeare as a nincompoop fraud, and now Philipp Stölzl's "Young Goethe in Love," which turns one of the greatest geniuses of German literature into a love-struck rapscallion.
In Germany, the film's country of origin, it was simply titled "Goethe!" (I've always made it a point to be wary of movies with exclamation points in the title.) The title change in English is obviously meant to remind us of "Shakespeare in Love," but the resemblance ends there. Despite its strenuous attempts at levity, not to mention high literacy, it's an earthbound and prosaic piece of filmmaking.
Young Goethe (Alexander Fehling, from "Inglourious Basterds") wants to be a famous playwright and poet, but his output is mediocre and his work habits are worse. Flunking his bar exams in 1772, he is sent by his autocratic father (Henry Hübchen) to the rural town of Wetzlar where he unhappily toils as a clerk at a county court under the Teutonic eye of ambitious prosecutor Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu). Goethe and Kestner end up pals, but that's before it's discovered that both are vying for the fetchingly giddy Lotte (Miriam Stein), whose widower father (Burghardt Klaussner) is angling to marry her off to the wealthy prosecutor.
Out of all this hoo-ha comes "The Sorrows of Young Werther," Goethe's novella about a suicidally love-stricken romantic that made his reputation just in the nick of time. It was a huge seller, although the movie neglects to mention that Goethe's name did not initially appear on it, and because of copyright laxities, he didn't earn a great deal from its success.
There's much else the film gets wrong, or fudges, starting with the fact that Goethe did indeed practice law for a time, he was on equal professional footing with Kestner, and so on. The bigger point to be made is: Why make a movie about a genius if you play down his gifts in favor of high jinks and standard-issue sentimentality? I'm not saying that movies about great artists, particularly at such an early stage in their careers, have to resound with aha! moments of greatness to come. But surely there has to be more to Goethe than this googly-eyed cutup? Lotte alone sees in him the greatness that will be. She thinks it ridiculous that he doesn't believe in himself, and is instrumental in getting "Werther" published, without his knowledge, even though she had already dumped him. (The film should be called "Dumped!")
When "Amadeus" came out – it should really have been called "Amadeus!" – Mozart was turned into a infantilized banshee who just happened to have written some of the most angelic music of all time. That was almost as bad as what "Anonymous" does to Shakespeare. From a strictly biographical standpoint, "Young Goethe in Love" isn't a travesty like those films, but it doesn't give us any insight into how a young genius might perceive the world or love or nature or much of anything else. He reclines by the lake, shirtless, and maudlin verses pop into his head. This is the guy who would grow up to write "Faust"? Grade: C- (Unrated.)