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Young Goethe in Love: movie review

'Young Goethe in Love' is an irreverent take on the German literary genius, who loses some gravitas in this tale of youth and unrequited love.

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Alexander Fehling as Johann Goethe and Miriam Stein as his love interest, Lotte Buff, star in ‘Young Goethe in Love.’

Music Box Films

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How does a moviemaker legitimately portray the life of a great artist? The question is in the air these days with the release of "Anonymous," which posits Shakespeare as a nincompoop fraud, and now Philipp Stölzl's "Young Goethe in Love," which turns one of the greatest geniuses of German literature into a love-struck rapscallion.

In Germany, the film's country of origin, it was simply titled "Goethe!" (I've always made it a point to be wary of movies with exclamation points in the title.) The title change in English is obviously meant to remind us of "Shakespeare in Love," but the resemblance ends there. Despite its strenuous attempts at levity, not to mention high literacy, it's an earthbound and prosaic piece of filmmaking.

Young Goethe (Alexander Fehling, from "Inglourious Basterds") wants to be a famous playwright and poet, but his output is mediocre and his work habits are worse. Flunking his bar exams in 1772, he is sent by his autocratic father (Henry Hübchen) to the rural town of Wetzlar where he unhappily toils as a clerk at a county court under the Teutonic eye of ambitious prosecutor Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu). Goethe and Kestner end up pals, but that's before it's discovered that both are vying for the fetchingly giddy Lotte (Miriam Stein), whose widower father (Burghardt Klaussner) is angling to marry her off to the wealthy prosecutor.

Out of all this hoo-ha comes "The Sorrows of Young Werther," Goethe's novella about a suicidally love-stricken romantic that made his reputation just in the nick of time. It was a huge seller, although the movie neglects to mention that Goethe's name did not initially appear on it, and because of copyright laxities, he didn't earn a great deal from its success.

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