There’s a scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen pulls a copy of Ariel from Diane Keaton’s bookshelf and snidely remarks, “Sylvia Plath — interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.” Never mind the college girl mentality, though; Hollywood has been guilty of misrepresenting the lives of artist types for years, taking liberty with drinking problems and daddy issues to explain the meanings behind writers’ and musicians’ greatest works. Some films go about this subtly, simply suggesting that certain events may or may not have been the source of inspiration, while others seem to glean information from the artists’ works for biographical fodder rather than using first-hand sources. Either way, the writer or musician biopic has a relatively predictable formula these days, and Young Goethe in Love, directed by Philipp Stölzl, is no exception. This German film, however, adopts a far less serious attitude in the face of so-called romantic tragedy — especially with actor Alexander Fehling’s waggish interpretation of Goethe — and although this surely helps it to stand apart from the hoards of biographical dramas, it ultimately leads to the movie coming off as more silly than serious.
The film centers on a young adult version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famed German Romantic poet, who has failed his law exam and is sent off by his father to complete a legal internship in the small town of Wetzlar. There, he meets Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a pretty redheaded singer with an overbearing father, no mother, and about 12 younger siblings. They engage in a brief but passionate love affair (complete with a somewhat bizarre and muddy sex scene) but must end their relationship due to the fact that a rich guy, who is incidentally Goethe’s boss, wants to marry her instead. Because she is a good daughter, she chooses financial security for her family over love. Distraught not only by his broken heart but also by the fact that he witnessed his best friend’s out-of-left-field suicide (a big WTF moment), young Goethe pens a supposedly autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which catapults him to celebrity status and makes everything OK.
It was apparent throughout the entire film that everyone involved had, at one point, really wanted to make Young Goethe in Love a lot like Amadeus. From the very opening scene where the obviously intelligent yet extremely silly Goethe fails to impress the traditional, gray-wigged men at law school and proceeds to write “LECKET MICH” in the snow outside the school’s window (you can look that one up), the movie again and again tries to capture the same blend of gravity and humor that makes the Mozart biopic one of the greatest ever made. But with Amadeus, a film that was extremely aware of its jarring inaccuracies and embraced them, the subject was and always was Mozart. He was portrayed not only as an immature genius, but as a basic human being, like any other who had issues being a father or son or discovering his passions. Young Goethe, however, does not have the same degree of emotional magnitude to balance out the amount of sheer silliness, and instead of comic relief, Goethe’s antics simply come off as campy.
However, in light of all this, there’s a distinct modernity to the film, especially in the dialogue, that makes it enjoyable to watch. If not for the period costumes, it’s quite possible that more than a few of Goethe and Charlotte’s interactions could have come straight out of a blockbuster romcom. From Charlotte’s initial reaction to Goethe’s advances — an eye roll and a stinging “Not interested!” — to her line before they first make love (“Wouldn’t this be the moment when you kiss me?”), most of the young lovers’ story plays out in a way that is so absolutely cliché it’s delectable. There’s some college-y humor in the relationship between Goethe and his friend Jerusalem, who are always weaseling their way out of trouble. They even take part in a drug-fueled romp after taking too many “magic drops” in a scene that’s on par with any other ridiculous Hollywood LSD sequence.
Truth be told, this film didn’t even really need to be about Goethe. Anyone could learn more about the poet by reading his Wikipedia page, and at times, you may actually forget the movie was supposed to be based on fact. But if not taken too seriously or watched with the intention of learning more about the most important writer in German history, Young Goethe really does no harm, and it entertains nonetheless.
The Greater Park Circle Film Society will screen Young Goethe in Love on Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $2 for members and $5 for non-members. Visit parkcirclefilms.org.