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'Goethe In Love': Sweetness To Go With Those Sorrows

<strong>Muse, Meet Poet:</strong> Lotte (Miriam Stein) sets the creative urge a-stirring for a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Alexander Fehling).
Music Box Films
Muse, Meet Poet: Lotte (Miriam Stein) sets the creative urge a-stirring for a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Alexander Fehling).

Charming in a way that American romantic comedies have all but forgotten, Young Goethe in Love is by turns cute, campy and endearingly cliched. Playing fast and loose with the life of the multidisciplinary genius, German director Philipp Stoelzl has crafted a period swooner that relies more on bucolic scenery than historical rigor.

But, really, who cares? In films of this type, accuracy is almost irrelevant — no one popped in to Shakespeare in Love hoping for a Bard biography, merely to lose oneself in romantic tussles and tossing curls. And if the film's renaming — a marginal improvement over the breathlessly brief Goethe! — clearly signals its hopes of identification with John Madden's fanciful Oscar winner, its embrace of mud and muck also suggests some commitment to 18th century realities.

Our first indication that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Alexander Fehling) may not be the most studious of lads occurs immediately, as the 23-year-old flunks his bar exam. It's 1772 and Goethe, a randy rake who prefers Frankfurt's liquor and ladies over his legal studies, is packed off to a clerking job in provincial Wetzlar by an irate papa (Henry Huebchen), who hopes to discourage his son's "scribbling." Once there, he bonds with a stuttering roommate (Volker Bruch) and even earns the respect of his legal mentor and eventual romantic rival, Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu).

The urge to scribble, however, is far from dormant, kicking into high gear when he bumps into bright-eyed, brazen Lotte. Three sheets to the wind and with seven boisterous siblings at home, Lotte (or at least Miriam Stein, the actress who plays her) has the dippy guile and fetchingly reckless appeal of No Way Out-era Sean Young. But she also has a head on her shoulders, and though Goethe's clavichord stylings — and even a tentative verse or two — are mighty impressive, Lotte's motherless brood needs more than plunking and poetry to sustain them.

Coloring carefully inside the costume-dramedy lines, Stoelzl and fellow screenwriters Christoph Mueller and Alexander Dydyna conjure up a time of swirling frock coats and sweaty horses, musty attics and mucky geese. As the wealthy Kestner moves in on poor, wavering Lotte (her conflict admirably rendered by Stein's mobile face), Goethe grabs kisses in the rain and damp, earthy sex. Between fondlings, he and his roomie — who also has problems of the heart — drown their sorrows in booze and belladonna. But when tragedy strikes, our hero will learn that confinement does wonders for one's productivity.

Climaxing with the 1774 publication of Goethe's sort-of-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (which, as we're told in a cheery end note, sparked a wave of national suicides), Young Goethe in Love is eager to prove that literary success is an excellent salve for the agonies of first love. "Reason is on the retreat," worries the Frankfurt press over the book's ecstatic reception, and of course it is: When Romanticism speaks, reason — and cinematic history — just hunker down and cover their heads. (Recommended)

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Jeannette Catsoulis
A Scottish expat who believes that most problems can be solved by a single malt and a Swedish masseur, Jeannette Catsoulis found her film-writing career kick-started when an arts editor discovered she was the only person at his dinner table who knew who Ed Wood was.