“Is this really what happened?” asks a publisher after reading the manuscript of Sorrows of Young Goethe. A young woman has brought him the only copy, recently penned and dismissed by her former lover, the young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She replies: “It is more than the truth; it is poetry.”
Young Goethe in Loveis assuredly more than the truth; much more. But is it poetry? What it undeniably is, is a gorgeously photographed (by cameraman Kolja Brandt), sumptuously mounted, thoroughly convincing and detailed recreation of the milieu of Strasbourg, Wetslar, and Frankfurt in the early 1770s. Although Goethe (1748-1832) has long been pronounced the greatest of all poets, along with Dante and Shakespeare, his story is likely unfamiliar to most filmgoers; it resonates more with devotees of Goethe’s most popular work, the semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther(1774).
The 23-year old Goethe (Alexander Fehling) is an impassioned, likeable young Romantic; and his beloved Charlotte Buff (Miriam Stein) a suitable companion in her own poetic passions. Charlotte’s betrothed, Kestener (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a manipulative spoiler of Goethe’s and Charlotte’s affair; and Goethe’s roommate, the tragic, suicidal Wilhelm Jerusalem (alternately known as “Karl”), is a sympathetic loser in his own ill-fated romance. The story opens in 1772, when Johann Goethe has just failed his doctoral examination and fled the scene after inscribing with his boot the words “Kiss my arse” in the snowy quad outside. His father, Kaspar, is disgusted with his son’s dilatory habits, preferring poetry to studies in the law. “Is it addressed to the Moon?” he asks Johann in exasperation at his verses. “Are you a woman or a man?”
The young Goethe goes off to Wetzlar, where he is condemned to a post as clerk in the Imperial Court of Appeal. His slovenly clothing and crooked wig are a sharp contrast to those of his supervisor, Kestner, who wears very proper attire and whose glasses and wig are perfectly adjusted. Away from the office is Johann’s roommate and fellow roisterer, Wilhelm Jerusalem. Wilhelm shares with Johann a taste for the ladies, and soon both are in love with, respectively, a married city woman and an available but poor young country woman. Johann begins attracting attention wearing the costume that Werther will make famous—a blue coat, yellow waistcoat, white breeches, and riding boots. Neither admits of attraction to the other. Johann pursues Lotte, who shares his romantic passions for literature, and in particular, for G. E. Lessing’s play, Emilia Galetti. (“Emelia is taken by a rich man, although she loves, someone else,” she explains for the benefit of the film’s viewers; “in her desperation, she asks her father to take her life. A wholly botched affair.”) [End Page 41]When she inadvertently glimpses some of Johann’s scribbling, she begins calling him “Werther,” after the hero of the unfinished manuscript he has been writing.
But Goethe and Wilhelm are about to face dramatic reversals. Wilhelm learns that his lady prefers to stay with her husband. And young Goethe, after a carnal tryst in the rainy woods with Lotte, is devastated when he later learns that she has agreed to marry his supervisor, Kestner, out of political and financial necessity. This is a heavy irony, since it was Johann’s advice to Kestner about the proper poetic style of wooing Lotte that wins the day for Kestner. In a brutal scene, ignorant of Lotte’s rejection letter, Johann arrives at a party at her house, not realizing it is her engagement party to Kestner. The confrontation with leaves him gasping in dismay. What are Johann and Wilhelm, these disappointed lovers to do? First they carouse at a local fair, where Johann witness a puppet theater version of the Faust story and hears the prophetic words, “I am my own hell.” Then, early one morning, Johann watches in horror as the lovelorn Wilhelm declares he is going to shoot himself. “I’m leaving,” whispers Wilhelm from the shadows, “will...