Failing his academic exam in the opening scene, his father packs him off from Frankfurt to the backwater of Wetzlar where he's to practice law and shape up. He does but he remains drawn to poetry, especially after he meets the feisty Lotte Buff. They fall passionately in love. However, her mother dead and the eldest of several children, Lotte has responsibilities for her many siblings, as her father makes clear. Goethe channels their love and sad situation into his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a classic, romantic work of the Sturm und Drang period, usually translated as Storm and Stress or Storm and Passion.
As with the recent film Anonymous that fictionalizes events in Elizabethan England, in general, and Shakespeare's life, in particular, Goethe in Love takes poetic license to fashion a dramatic story. Both are narrative feature films, not documentaries, so fair enough. And director Philipp Stolzl seems most inspired by real events as he was in North Face, about the tragic 1936 attempted ascent of the Eiger. Here he burrows into the quintessential character of romantic inclinations and the social pressures that qualify them.
Beautifully filmed, Goethe in Love convincingly recreates the 1770s with muddy streets, dim candlelight, claustrophobic offices, and lived-in clothes. In other words, it doesn't romanticize the dirt and work nor does it gloss over the tragic consequences. Goethe was blamed for sensationalizing suicide as he became a fabulously famous writer because of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
As Goethe, Alexander Fehling brings a vulnerable naïveté to his performance, an immensely different presence from his cold Nazi Master Sergeant Wilhelm who sparks the basement tavern shootout in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino's spelling.) But the actor who truly infuses energy is Miriam Stein as Lotte Buff whose unbridled honesty and high-spirited charm enlivens every scene she's in. Young Goethe in Love brings youth of the 18th century charmingly and entertainingly into the 21st. In German with English subtitles, at a Landmark Theatre.