After failing his law exams and experiencing a painful rejection from a publisher, young Johann (Alexander Fehling) is sent by his father to the boring town of Wetzlar to mend his ways. There, Johann's spirits are raised the moment he sets eyes on Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a beautiful, feisty and independent–minded girl. The couple fall in love, but Lotte is supposed to save her family’s fortunes by marrying Johan's boss, dull and awkward Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu).

A doomed love affair that inspired a literary genius.

SBS ON DEMAND: If a young, aspiring German poet and author named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hadn’t had his heart broken in cruel circumstances, it’s doubtful he’d have written about a doomed affair in his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

That tome was acclaimed as a masterpiece and was the catalyst for Goethe’s highly successful career but it had unintended consequences, widely described as the book that 'launched a thousand suicides."

The story of Goethe’s romantic misadventure and his emergence as a literary giant is superbly chronicled in Goethe!, a fictionalised version of events co-written and directed by Philipp Stölzl.

Alexander Fehling brings a great deal of energy, wit and pathos to the role of Goethe. We’re introduced to the character in 1772 when he’s 23, studying law, drinking heavily but not spending much time with his textbooks: Not surprisingly, he learns he’s flunked his PhD.

The next scene instantly establishes his playful and irreverent nature as he appears to dance in the university courtyard. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s written 'kiss my arse" in the snow.

He’s written a play which his stern father dismisses as 'child’s play" and it’s rejected by a publisher. His father sends him to a distant town of Wetzlar to work as an apprentice at the local Supreme Court.

Young Goethe is assigned to work under the haughty Albert Kestner (Moritz Bleibtreu), who has little time or patience with the upstart. At a ball Goethe meets Lotte Buff (Miriam Stein), a vivacious, feisty and independent-minded young woman. Lotte’s mother had died a year earlier and her father is having trouble providing for his large family.

Goethe is smitten, Lotte reciprocates, she initiates their first kiss and they’re soon making love (a fictional but justified plot device; Stölzl has admitted the prevailing moral code and fear of syphilis would have precluded the couple from having sex).

Kestner had met Lotte and asked Goethe for advice on how to propose to a woman without revealing her identity. Lotte then learns her father has arranged for her to marry Kestner to avoid losing their house. Kestner pops the question to her, using the exact technique which Goethe had suggested. Stein handles this touching scene brilliantly, a horrified look giving way to tears of sad resignation to her fate.

Just as Goethe is having his heart broken, his friend and fellow law student Wilhelm Jerusalem (Volker Bruch) is rejected by his married lover, with devastating consequences—an event depicted in The Sorrows of Young Werther.

As Goethe discovers his lover is now Kestner’s fiance, there’s a heated confrontation between the two, leading to a duel which is also fiction.

The film is richly costumed and a visual treat, the internal scenes capturing the opulence of 18th Century high society in Germany, and lush external scenes resembling Rembrandt paintings.

Stölzl, who also directed the gripping mountaineering drama North Face, switches adroitly from light comedy in the vein of Shakespeare in Love to wrenching drama. It’s another impressive performance from Fehling, who played a drunken German soldier in Inglourious Basterds. Stein is wonderful in conveying Lotte’s sassy spirit and sense of fun and, ultimately, her torment.

Bleibtreu has to play Kestner as a stiff and socially awkward man but is allowed to give vent to his emotions as he realises Lotte may never get over her love for Goethe.

First reviewed at the Audio Festival of German Films.

Watch it now at SBS On Demand  


1 hour 42 min