(2010) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hubchen, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Anna Botcher, Stefan Haschke, Xavier Hutter, Oscar Weidner, Guido Lambrecht, Vitus Wieser. Directed by Philipp Stolzl
Writers have a tendency to use their own lives for inspiration. Their experiences become kind of a template on which their best works are based. Some of the best templates are those based on terrible experiences.
Johann Goethe (Fehling) – with an “oe” – is a writer, or he wants to be. His poetry and drama up to that point hadn’t been well-received. His father (Hubchen) wants him to be a lawyer but Goethe is a bit too flighty for that. He fails the law exams, doing a mocking little dance afterwards and writing the words “kiss my ass” in the snow. Dear old dad sends his unruly son from the big city lights of Frankfurt for the country seat that is Wetzlar where his father has enough pull to get him work as a clerk for the local prosecutor Johann Christian Kestler (Bleibtreu).
Kestler is a bit of a stickler and one of his junior clerks, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (Bruch) – a terrible stammerer and a somewhat shy nebbish to boot – is given Goethe to take under his wing. The two become fast friends and Jerusalem takes Goethe to a dance, where Goethe – urban sophisticate that he was – is terribly bored.
That is, until he meets Charlotte Buff (Stein), a plain-spoken country girl with a voice like an angel and a face to match. He becomes completely smitten with her. Riding off into the country, he meets her again and spends an afternoon baking bread, playing with her many younger siblings and playing the clavichord. It becomes plain that she has feelings for him as well.
Jerusalem has become enamored of a married woman and is entertaining thoughts of running away with her once she leaves her husband. Even Kestler, Goethe’s boss, has found someone and enlists Goethe’s help in wooing her. Goethe, happily in love, is only too pleased to help someone else find what he has found. Goethe is as blissful as a man can be.
That’s usually when the floor disappears from beneath your feet and thus it is with Goethe. Jerusalem’s mistress has decided to stay with her husband and it turns out that the object of Kestler’s affection is Charlotte, who because of her family’s dire financial situation has agreed to become engaged to Kestler who is far more prosperous than Goethe. A distraught Jerusalem commits suicide in front of Goethe and now he is under arrest for illegally dueling. Will he survive to write Faust?
Of course he will. The trouble with biographical movies is that you know that the threats of suicide are mainly bluster and won’t be acted upon, at least not successfully. The events here correspond to the events that Goethe used to base his first great novel on, The Sorrows of Young Werther which combined all of the main characters into a love triangle. It was such a sensation that it spawned copycat suicides among the lovelorn.
The period is well-depicted here, from the brutality of Teutonic justice to the wide disparity between wealth and poverty. The cast here is solid and bring life to long-dead figures of history. Fehling’s Goethe is mischievous, somewhat anti-authoritative and full of piss and vinegar. I will admit this is a bit at odds with the Goethe that I knew, a stolid conservative who very much seemed to reject the tenets of following one’s heart in favor of trusting one’s logic. Still, even Goethe had to be young once.
Stein is a real beauty and it’s easy to see why Goethe would fall so hard for her Lotte. Stein and Fehling make an appealing couple and turn this into one of the most appealing onscreen literary romances since Shakespeare in Love. The similarity in the titles of the movies isn’t necessarily coincidental.
I am to understand that certain liberties have been taken with historical accuracy but that is to be expected – after all, if you want to learn something, there’s always the Discovery Channel – or wonder of wonders, actually reading a book. The Twilight set will appreciate the hopeless nature of the love between Goethe and Charlotte even if they have not a clue who Goethe is or his significance in literature – it is not an unmerited claim to state that without Goethe, it is unlikely Twilight would have come to pass.
The movie has a goodly amount of romance, a bit of intrigue and a quiet sense of fun. There is humor, drama and even a bit of sex. It’s entertaining and while some might grumble about subtitles, there is a certain sense of humor here that is appealing. It’s a wonderful movie well worth seeking out in your local art house or failing that, on home video when it is released in that medium next spring.
REASONS TO GO: Most Americans are unfamiliar with Goethe, his work and his life so it’s a good way to find out more about one of the world’s great literary figures.
REASONS TO STAY: Subtitles are a hassle for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a couple of disturbing images and a few bad words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.
HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful German countryside deserves to be seen on the big screen.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Behind the Burly Q