Saturday, January 28, 2012

Young Goethe in love

A reader of this blog emailed me this morning a YouTube link to the movie Goethe! I immediately prepared my morning tea and settled in to be entertained.

After an opening scene in which Goethe is seen making a mess of his legal examination at the university in Strassburg, the action moves to Wetzlar, where Goethe went in May 1772 to continue his training at the Imperial Cameral Court. From a physical point of view, Alexander Fehling gives a good impersonation of Goethe, matching very much the following description of Goethe by a contemporary:

"He possesses what is called genius and a quite extraordinarily lively imagination. He is forceful in his emotions. His cast of mind is noble. ... He loves children and can long occupy himself with them. He is bizarre, and there are various things in his deportment, his exterior that could make him disagreeable. But he is nonethless well regarded by children, women and many others. He acts as it occurs to him to do, without concerning himself whether others like it, whether it is fashionable, whether convention permits it."

The person making this observation was Johann Christian Kestner, engaged since 1768 to Lotte Buff. He is portrayed in Goethe! by Moritz Bleibtreu (above), who is such a masterful actor and whose performance as Kestner is so touching and so dominating that Goethe (as portrayed by Fehling) began to seem very silly and not very deep.

It's not surprising that the movie takes liberties with the "historical record," indeed quite amazing liberties. For instance, in real life Goethe knew Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem only in passing, yet in the movie the two are bosom buddies, sharing a desk at the cameral court, getting drunk together, and racing through the countryside on horseback. Goethe is even shown as present at Jerusalem's suicide. The biggest liberty is in the relationship between Goethe and Lotte Buff. As mentioned above, Kestner was long engaged to Lotte when Goethe appeared in Wetzlar, yet the movie portrays Goethe as having been there first and, moreover, having sex with her. Yes, bare bodies and all.

Right from the start, however, I was struck by how much even a Goethe scholar like myself tends to view Goethe's life in these months through the lens of the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The screenplay makes the most of this tendency, leaving in certain scenes from the novel, e.g., the iconic one of Lotte slicing bread for her brothers and sisters.

And it transforms other scenes from the novel, the most compelling one of which is the famous thunderstorm scene with Lotte and Werther. In the novel this scene echoes the scene in Book 4 of the Aeneid, in which Dido and Aeneas, having taken shelter in a cave from a storm, make love. (As portrayed below by Goethe's friend Johann Heinrich Tischbein.) In the movie, Goethe and Lotte take shelter from a storm in a cave, where the sex scene takes place.

Emilia Galotti, a copy of which is found on Werther's desk after his suicide, is shown in the movie to be Lotte's favored reading. The movie even tries to tell us where the name "Werther" comes from: we see Lotte writing Goethe a letter beginning "Mein Werther" (i.e., My dear one).

Still, the movie was lots of fun, mostly because of its wonderful recreation of 18th-century life. You really get the feeling for the roughness and debauchery of ordinary life, the public nature of even private moments. The house in which Lotte lives with her many siblings is wonderfully re-created, as are the restrictive circumstances in which that family lives. Clearly, however, the director is trying to illustrate the sources of artistic inspiration. There is a wonderful scene of Goethe and Jerusalem at the market in Wetzlar, getting drunk and cavorting with ladies of the night, that suggests a re-creation of Walpurgis Night; they even watch a performance of a Faust puppet play.

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