Legend has it that there is an unwritten show business rule that suggests it is not a good idea for any actor to play major historical figures and religious icons. It's based on the not unfounded suspicion that whatever the actor does runs the risk of appearing puny and trivial against history. Or, to put it another way, unlike original fictional character's written directly for the screen, legends, especially profounds ones, already have a place in the popular imagination and a movie can endorse the official view, argue it, or ruin it.
This idea and the burden that goes with it, hung over the making of Goethe!, according to its star Alexander Fehling.
Fehling, 29, who plays the title role, is currently considered a rising figure in Europe even though he has only appeared in a handful of pictures: including 13 Semester (2008), and Sturm (2008), and If Not Us, Who? (2011) in which he plays Red Army Faction founder Andreas Baader. He's probably best known to foreign audiences for his famous bit part in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009). His 2006 movie debut in And Along Came the Tourists (for which he won the Forderpreis Deutscher Award) will also screen at this year's German Film Festival.
Full of good humour, Fehling began the interview by explaining that he had to take the call from his parents' home in Berlin because he “only has a cell phone”. Unpretentious and affable, Fehling says that playing Goethe is fraught with problems...how do you make him accessible since in Germany and literary studies he is an academic heavyweight?
“Every school child in Germany knows about Goethe,” Fehling says. “It would take two lifetimes to read all of Goethe's work and all of the writing about him.”
Intellectual, literary giant and lawyer, Johann Wolfgang Goethe's interests were expansive: he wrote drama, fiction, as well as science and philosophy. He is perhaps most famous for the narrative poem Faust and his concerns and style became central to Germany's sturm and drang literary movement. “Goethe is kind of a monument,” Frehling says. “He's becomes this wise man, this universal genius and young people in Germany, they immediately fall asleep when they hear the name Goethe,” he says cheerfully. “It's like that, really.”
Goethe! he says, is not about Goethe, at least the one found in biographies and histories and in his own writings. He is, in the movie, an 'invention'.
“He's just a vulnerable young guy looking for wisdom.”
Fehling modestly credits the design and shape of the role to director Philipp Stolz (North Face, 2008) who co-wrote the film with Christoph Muller; together, and with Fehling they create a charming Goethe for the movie: a wilful, funny, smart, clumsy fellow looking for romance with all the best intentions...and making a bit of a mess of it.
The marketers have pitched the film as a German answer to Shakespeare in Love (its US title is Young Goethe in Love) since the plot is a free speculation about the writing of Goethe's first major work, the semi-autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774. The movie is the story of a love triangle that mixes Goethe's real-life narrative with Sorrows' fictional details.
In the movie Goethe, who clerks in law court, is a young man with literary ambitions. He falls in love with the beautiful Lotte (Miriam Stein) who is betrothed to Albert (Moritz Bleibtreu). Fehling says that for him one of the key notes of his performance was finding out that the real Goethe had a tendency to fall in love with unattainable women: “He used this stuff – the passion for women – for writing – I think he was longing for pain a bit and he wanted to feel this pain because it made him feel alive.”
Fehling is enthusiastic about the Goethe!'s mesh of different dramatic registers and believes to be something of a relief from recent German cinema: “It's a comedy, a romantic dramedy or something! Whatever it is, it's very entertaining and some times the German movies are not very entertaining, let's be honest.”
Fehling has the air of a performer firmly grounded in the craft. In a sense he is already a veteran despite his relative youth; he has been acting since age 12. He is wary of celebrity, even if he admits to enjoying it. This year he was awarded a “Shooting Star' award at the Berlin Film Festival in February. He says he gets embarrassed when he reads the good reviews; “I think, 'who is this guy that they are talking about?'”
Right now he has two films awaiting release: Niemandsland (Toke Constatin Hebbeln) and The Art of Dying, an ambitious, low budget picture directed by young cinematographer/filmmaker Jan Zabeli. Fehling says the project about a young man 'lost in Africa' was developed by his co-actors, and the director and a small crew in an almost improvised way. “We did not want to make a story about a foreign country; we wanted, instead, to go to this place and find the story.”
Disarmingly candid in conversation he is open and straightforward about his craft, underneath his considerable charm, serious, even earnest. He does not believe that acting should by about an actor's externals: “In Goethe! I get to ride a horse, be a lover, be funny and that can be distracting because it becomes about me, what the actor can do, and not about the character.”
He discusses making the now famous scene in Inglorious Basterds, which, he says became very important to bringing him a lot of attention: “Tarantino is very curious about who you are as a person and he knows what he wants and he likes to be surprised…I think you have to show a director that you are brave, not that you are right (in the way you want to do a scene).”
Goethe! Screens at the Audi Festival of German Film, now touring.