Perhaps there’s no greater challenge to a filmmaker than bringing a literary giant to cinematic life. Recently, portraits of creative titans (their works and circle) have been successful (Lope), at odds with the arts (Juan) or shooting qualitative blanks (The Child Prodigy—cross-references below).
Happy to report that director Philipp Stölzl’s Goethe! is most certainly in the win column. (Accolades as well to the co-screenwriters: Alexander Dydyna and Christoph Müller.
Using Ingo Frenzel’s well-balanced, string-rich score (and solo piano personal reflections adding a serene sense of “one”) delights the ear. Beautiful German locations, vividly detailed sets and magically framed countryside panoramas (the horse cart atop a bridge even as a lone horseman gallops underneath is an early visual-metaphor and narrative marvel) flood the eye with unforgettable imagery.
Moving through these larger-than-life sounds and backdrops is a first-rate cast that collectively captures the segment of the famed poet’s life (the circumstances leading up to the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther) with zest, empathy and artistic pride.
In short, nearly all of this production is as steeped in the Romantic spirit as the genius poet’s craft.
The only serious misstep is the maudlin, excessively sweet coda where the mighty drama teeters on the abyss of tawdry.
Alexander Fehling in the title role is immediately at one with the childlike writer so ahead of his time that even he doubts his worth (so different from deservedly arrogant Beethoven whose personal life also involved the darkness of suicide attempts—cross-reference below).
The apparent model for the fictional Werther (Wilhelm Jerusalem given a passionate outing by Volker Bruch) does his best setting up Goethe with his first big love, Charlotte Buff (heroically rendered by Miriam Stein, who instinctively understands her role in life where real love only exists in hot-blooded verses).
The other major, pivotal character is Albert Kestner—Wetzlar’s leading prosecutor who has the tragic misfortune of selecting the same Lotte as his bride-to-be. Moritz Bleibtreu turns in a magnificent performance as the haughty counsellor who can’t abide such wasteful pastimes as plays until his intended reveals her infatuation with Gotthold Lessing’s Emilia Galotti. Of course, the dual suitors finally discover each other’s shared love, bringing the drama to full boil and—perhaps (unless this story is already known—the early demise of one or both.
Throughout it all, there’s precious little of the prolific “scribbler’s” actual stanzas (with one deliciously contrived “ring” line that echoes magically with Lope de Vega—cross-reference below).
That decision is Stölzl’s wisest. Letting the general story fill the frames can only inspire viewers to get the bug and read the original texts—now from a much different point of view and understanding. JWR
PS: At a social gathering the same day when describing this movie, both a same-aged American and worldly Briton had never heard of Johann Goethe.