Monday, October 31, 2011

YOUNG GOETHE IN LOVE: doing "then" as "now" -- and almost getting away with it

Last year Philipp Stölzl's North Face surprised art-house America with a riveting mountain-climbing movie that also gave us some interesting behind-the-scenes history of pre-WWII Nazi Germany. This year the filmmaker is back with a less success-ful, though relatively entertaining and pretty-to-look-at endeavor called -- in its American retitling -- YOUNG GOETHE IN LOVE, based on the early adulthood of 18th Century German literary icon Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Financed (at least in part) and distributed in its home country by Warner Bros, Germany, the film is European mainstream with a capital "M." Conflating the look of time past with the behavior of time present, the movie seems dead bent on making the iconic figure a romantic hero for high-schoolers and college kids everywhere. (When our hero is denied a degree, he writes Kiss My Ass in the snow for all the faculty to see.)

The film's actual German title, in fact, is Goethe! (that exclamation point is not mine.) Can you imagine the Russians putting out a movie called Nabokov!? Or the French a film named Rousseau!? I actually could imagine a British musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber called Willie! (about that famous writer explored most recently in the new movie Anonymous). Or even an American musical, probably devised by gays, called Tennessee! But I digress. And the reason for that digression is that, as director and co-writer (with Christoph Müller and Alexander Dydyna) Herr Stölzl, shown above, has given us such a patently paint-by-numbers version of this chunk of the writer's life that, in any particular scene, you could easily imagine the characters bursting into song -- initially joyful, later rather sad. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, as I write this, a score is even now being composed.

So then, let's not look to Young Goethe in Love for a history lesson. The rejiggered title is actually a pretty smart one, as it will put literarily-inclined audiences in mind of Goethe's initial breakthrough novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. And what the audiences will get when they plunk down their tushies in their local arthouse seats is a very pretty movie that certainly looks (above and below) 18th Century.

The film move along at a relatively sprightly pace, introducing us to young Goethe, his father, friends, co-workers and first love.

The cast, too, is well-chosen and on the mark. As Goethe, Alexander Fehling (above) exhibits the proper joie de vivre, sorrow, and impetuousness of youth,

while Miriam Stein, as his enamorata Lotte (above) has looks, spirit and intelligence aplenty.

As Goethe's best friend, who falls for an older, married woman, and in his sad way inspires the conclusion of his friend's first artistic success, Volker Bruch (above) is impassioned, silly and sad in equal measure.

Best of all is Moritz Bleibtreu (above), the wonderfully versatile actor who can play a terrorist (The Baader Meinhof Complex) Woody Harrelson's lover (The Walker), a charming scoundrel (last year's Soul Kitchen) or an absolute hero (romantic, as In July or dramatic, as with The Experiment) with equal aplomb. Here Bleibtreu plays Goethe's strait-laced, tongue-tied boss, as well as his unknown romantic rival, and he's terrific, as usual -- the only actor of the above four who manages to seem properly "period."

The celebrity-sotted finale, again turning the past into the present, provides the perfect ending to a pleasantly run-of-the-mill historical rom-com/dram-com. Music Box Films is releasing this one, which opens this Friday, November 4, in New York City at the Sunshine Cinema and The Paris, and in the L.A, area at the Encino Town Center 5, The Landmark, the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Santa Ana South Coast Village.  More playdates around the country will follow. Click here to take a gander at them all.

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