Samuel Fuller once conceived of a biopic on Balzac that opened with a thrilling carriage chase. Such keyed-up, outside-the-box thinking compels the makers of Young Goethe in Love, which strains to rebrand the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther from the father of adolescent self-pity into the kind of incorrigible figure who could encourage bouncy period sagas with titles like “Young Goethe in Love.” (That’s nothing; the original German title is simply Goethe!, the exclamation point being a kind of joke?)
Philip Stözl’s film opens with collegiate J.W. Goethe (Alexander Fehling, of Inglourious Basterds) being shunned by a Ph.D department; he replies by writing “KISS MY ASS” in the snow with his foot. What a card! Soon, the seeds that will turn our bright-eyed, cocky, funny-face-making goofball into a game-changing depresso are planted when he segues into a career of law clerkdom. There, he meets and courts hottie Lotte (Miriam Stein). She loves him back, but is arranged for marriage to Goethe’s employer Albert (Moritz Bleibtreu). Lotte’s seemingly inexplicable choice of Albert over Goethe sends the latter over the edge and the film from a supposedly fun lark into a tragedy-o-rama that encompasses suicides, duels and moping aplenty. Rarely has a “dramedy” been so neatly divided between its comedy and drama parts.
Whether the taller events, most naggingly the “kiss my ass” part, depicted within truly occurred or not is irrelevant. They make this crowd pleaser, with its bouncy score and its actorly mugging, feel like it’s being peppy out of desperation; watching it is only mildly less surreal than a feel-good movie about Nietzsche before he got all existential and stuff. Intimations of a slobs-vs.-snobs mentality even crop up in the relationship between rakish Goethe and Albert, who as depicted is as comically uptight as the horse-riding Niedermeyer from Animal House. Ultimately, Young Goethe succumbs to its subject’s fashionable melancholy, which is not to be confused with actual melancholy. It’s the kind of examination of depression to which you can take your grandmother.