their national poet

“Goethe!” – Germany’s National Poet Seen Through a Fresh Lens

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is a hero in Germany, the most important writer in the German language. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant man – not only penning the drama Faust, his magnum opus, but also poems and novels, and works of science and philosophy. But was he a rock star? Or more, precisely, a late 18th century celebrity who set female hearts racing?

Still from „Goethe!“, Alexander Fehling as Goethe, Copyright: 2010 Warner Bros. Ent.

That is what a new film Goethe!, by the director Philipp Stölzl seems to suggest. My heart sank when I saw that exclamation mark after the poet’s name: it seemed clear that poor Johann Wolfgang was going to be given the Mama Mia! treatment. And another great German institution (Remember the Deutsche Mark? Or should I say: the Deutsch Mark!) was about to fall. Philipp Stölzl’s previous film experience included making video-clips for Madonna, Rosenstolz and Rammstein. And now: JWG.

A kind of James Dean character

Still from „Goethe!“, Copyright: 2010 Warner Bros. Ent.

So I dragged my feet on the way to the cinema, fearing that I was going to witness a travesty, a betrayal of Germany’s genius. Sure enough at the beginning, I ticked off all the historical distortions. The film depicts Goethe as a brash, brilliant, good-looking 23-year-old – all plausible enough – but Germany's national poet is turned into a kind of James Dean character. The film version of Goethe is shown as a student drop-out (wrong), who falls in love with Lotte (correct), the fiancé of his boss (not strictly true), culminating in sex in the rain (almost certainly not true) and a duel with the cuckolded fiancé (not true).

What has happened is this: a film director has tried to turn a German national hero into someone comprehensible for a new generation of Germans. I find it a little upsetting because despite being English I was taught Goethe in the same way as generations of Germans. That is, breaking down and analysing his texts, memorising and reciting his verse, discussing in the classroom the real nature of the Faustian bargain. We were taught about Goethe’s words and not about his love affairs.

Sacrificing historical accuracy

Goethe monument in Frankfurt, Copyright: www.pixelio/Foto: Dr. Klaus-Uwe GerhardtSomething equally shocking happened in Britain in 1998 with a film called Shakespeare in Love. England’s most formidable writer – admired, of course, by Goethe – is shown in the film as a romantic fool. He has written a comedy called Romeo and Ethel dedicated to his girlfriend. Having discovered that Ethel has been betraying him, he burns the play and starts instead a tragedy called Romeo and Juliet. But he has writer’s block. It is only when he falls for Gwyneth Paltrow that he recovers his ability to write – on the theme of forbidden love. It is all cheerful (Oscar-winning) rubbish and only the fact that it is full of Shakespearian word play saved it from a savaging by patriotic Shakespearian traditionalists.

The argument in its defence was the same as with Goethe!. If a film makes Shakespeare or Goethe interesting or relevant for a new generation of readers then it is worth sacrificing historical accuracy. A similar case was made for Amadeus which took Mozart and turned him into a hip, sex-obsessed foul-mouthed child genius, and which also invented a sub-plot about an evil court rival, Salieri. The Austrians were upset, but it did make young people curious about Mozart. “Amadeus ist überhaupt eins unserer großen Vorbilder,” sagt Stölzl. “Der ist ja zum großen Teil frei erfunden … und es ist trotzdem der allerbeste Film über Mozart.” („Amadeus is one of our great models It was largely invented … and even so it is the best ever film made about Mozart.“).

Artificial eroticisation

There have been other attempts to make Goethe come alive on celluloid: Just over ten years Egon Günther directed Die Braut about Christiane Vulpius or rather about her menage a trois with Charlotte von Stein and Goethe. Germany’s great national literary model does not come out of the film very well, he is presented as ashamed to show his wife Christiane Vulpius in public, a moral coward who was ignoring her cries of pain when she was dying. Was Goethe like that – or is he just being viewed through a modern prism? Apart from the Sorrows of Young Werther, women did not really play such a strong role in his writing, it seems to me. But the need to make classical literature accessible to the video game and internet generation requires the artificial eroticisation of Goethe’s life.

Miriam Stein und Alexander Fehling in „Goethe!“; Copyright: 2010 Warner Bros. Ent.

Even the film-makers of Goethe! acknowledged that the writer almost certainly did no more than kiss Lotte (played in the film by Miriam Stein). But the Young Werther is fascinating and I understand why Philipp Stölzl tinkers with history – the film makes Goethe a witness to the suicide of the original for love-sick Werther and telescopes the narrative. The final scene shows Goethe travelling past a crowd fighting to buy a copy of his Young Werther and, after recognising him, shouting “Johann, Johann” as if he were the lead singer from Tokyo Hotel. And the fact is, it could really have happened like that. The Sorrows of Young Werther was probably the first German cult novel; some people actually imitated Werther and killed themselves after reading the book. Despair, unrequited or thwarted love: it always sells.

Goethe can be fun

Still from „Goethe!“, Copyright: 2010 Warner Bros. Ent.

And so when I did end up going to see the film, I turned a blind eye to the bio-pic Kitsch and ignored the review in TV Digital (“Der perfekte Film um den ollen Goethe kennenzulernen”), and actually enjoyed it. All around me in the cinema were young people. If only ten of them were inspired to go off and google Goethe, the film will have made a contribution. One German youth culture celebrity today is a music producer, Diether Bohlen, who acts as a judge in the German equivalent of Pop Idol, a talent show for the talent-less. Asked whether he read Goethe, he replied “Es gibt viele Dinge, die wichtiger sind im Leben.” Maybe some of Bohlen’s fans will go to see Goethe!, read the Young Werther and understand something about real talent. Goethe! may upset conservative Germans by seeming to trivialise his literature. But it will also convert a few traditionalists like me. Goethe can be fun. Who would have thought it?

Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2010

Photo “Goethe monument in Frankfurt” © Dr. Klaus-Uwe Gerhardt / PIXELIO

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