Being young and in love feels like the most wonderful thing in the world. Being young and broken hearted is the worst thing in the world. But when you’re young, one inevitably follows the other, with the lowest lows making the highest highs that much more euphoric. Such is the emotional life of Young Goethe in Love, a dramatized version of the real Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1772, before he was Germany’s artistically famous poet, philosopher, and all around Renaissance man. Young Goethe in Loveis a powerful intoxicant of both agony and ecstasy and the ensuing wisdom that only the hangover can provide.
The privileged and funny young Goethe (Alexander Fehling) begins the film flunking out of his final oral law exam at the prestigious university. Though he cracks up the sour-faced professors with his desperately creative answers, it is not enough to make up for his obvious lack of studying. Goethe has bigger fish to fry – his magnum opus of poetry – a love song to the moon. Unfortunately for Goethe, neither the publisher nor his father (Henry Hubchen), a prominent lawyer, are impressed with his talents. Disgusted with his spoiled son, his father condemns him to work as a law apprentice in the country. It is here, as an artist serving out his law education like a prison sentence, that he by happenstance meets the radiant Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein) at a local party.
It is easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her. Stein plays the role effortlessly, in a tour de force of charm. She challenges the charismatic Goethe with playful and confident verbal jabs, she sings like an angel, and my God, what a beautiful woman. Here is the most charming, addictive portion of the film, where Goethe’s passions are awakened, and the whole universe seems complicit in putting these lovers together. Audiences will feel his emotional rush – a young man that seems to have found his muse, and the unstoppable forces of magnetism that push them together.
Yet…it is not a love story without complications. What starts out as a lighthearted romance quickly descends into dark parts of the soul, with consequences from their coupling spiraling out of control. Fehling plays Goethe as a man completely present and living life in full vivid color, each emotion in its purest primary color. He is whimsical, light and happy…until he is not. And then, like all disappointed youth, his colors turn equally desperate, broken, and full of despair. There is no past or future, there are only the feelings of the moment. And when things are darkest, he turns to his soulful writing.
Goethe oozes likeability. He quickly befriends his stuttering desk partner Wilhelm (a loveable Volker Bruch) at the school, the target of brown-nosing bullies at the stodgy law office. He even learns to like his boss Albert (Moritz Bleibtreu), a stiff man who hates Goethe at first, but even he is won over by his charm. Goethe wants to make everything better around him, even sometimes to his own detriment. The film is clearly in love with not only Geothe’s object of affection, but Goethe himself. He is a man audiences will want to see win.
The transformation from light and whimsy to darkness and wisdom is actually the strongest part of the film. Some will say it is uneven, with the first half almost a different film from the second. But isn’t that what youth feels like? Isn’t it a crazy ride to feel so in love as if nature herself were serenading you…and to feel so much despair as if demons were consuming you alive? Any sixteen-year-old can understand these sentiments instinctively.
In this sense, it is a romantic film in the truest sense of the word, as it is a celebration of the dark and light elements of life itself. Is it cliché? Perhaps some will think so. But there is a time when some of us will barely remember feeling that strongly about anything, and miss the vivid color of living life in the moment. Young Goethe in Love reminds us that passion is its own reward, if you can handle where it takes you.