Though the title Young Goethe In Love is more descriptive than the film’s original German title, Goethe!, it suggests less about what viewers can expect from this story about the love life of a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The film seems designed to ask a question no one was asking: “Could the events that inspired Goethe’s breakthrough work, The Sorrows Of Young Werther—a book that helped kick-start the Romantic movement, inspired a generation of young men to emulate its tortured hero, and possibly caused an uptick in European suicides—serve as fodder for a frolicsome costume romance?” The answer: sort of. Though the film, directed by music-video vet Philipp Stölzl, owes a debt to Werther and the real-life events that inspired it, it owes an even greater debt to Shakespeare In Love, a witty trifle that suggested great literature could be inspired by period variations on the romantic complications that usually separate, say, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler.
Stölzl struggles to balance the required frothiness with the equally required angst, but he fortunately has help from an appealing cast. Alexander Fehling, best known as one of the doomed German soldiers in Inglourious Basterds, plays Goethe as an insolent youth whose faith in his writing far outstrips that of his father or any publisher. Exiled to Wetzlar, he begins to work as a lawyer. Before long, he catches the eye of Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a young woman with a feisty spirit, an independent mind, and familial obligations that keep her from exercising either as much as she’d like. They fall in love, but the pairing becomes a triangle when Stein discovers she’s been pledged to Moritz Bleibtreu, Fehling’s unctuous but likeable boss.
Whatever its basis in fact, there’s nothing to Young Goethe In Love’s story that dozens of other films haven’t done before, and better. But Fehling keeps his Goethe just on the right side of obnoxious, and Stein invests a lot of character and gawky charm into what easily could have been just “the girl.” Some touches, particularly the ending, are eye-rollers, but as literary wafers go, it’s pleasant enough, though best countered with some sturm und drang within 24 hours of viewing.