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Herr Werther, a new magistrate to the Grand Duchy of Walheim who is a violinist and poet, seems to have fate on his side as he meets and pursues a beautiful local woman, Charlotte. But as Werther sets to propose marriage, Charlotte reluctantly tells him she has been promised to another, Werther's superior, Judge Hochstätten. Werther and Charlotte decide to keep their romance from the judge and each descends into depression. Will they be able to keep their feelings a secret?
The "Sorrows of Young Werther" (1774), a rather hapless and excessively emotional law clerk, is often thought of as the first great German novel. Whether it is or isn't is not important. What is important is that Goethe's epistolary work (no doubt influenced by Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, though probably not Tobias Smollett) had a monumental impact on the development of German romanticism, and on the development of a poetry of feeling, of 'sturm und drang'. It impacted upon almost all forms of humanist endeavour: drama (especially during the 1770s through the work of Lessing), poetry, theology (still the queen of the sciences in late eighteenth century Germany), history, and other categories of belles-lettres. It exploded on the continental literary scene and vaulted its author to the status of a superstar. Thousands of young men committed imitative suicide, and Napoleon kept a copy in his knapsack.
Werther is supposed to have been, like Goethe himself, a junior clerk in the Reichskammersgericht (the imperial supreme court) based in the free upper Rheinish city of Wetzlar. Lotte is essentially Charlotte Buff, Goethe's lost love (in this instance a decent performance by the delightful Annie Vernay).
The story is very well known, and there is no need to repeat any of the details. Pierre Richard-Willm, often derided as rather stiff and wooden is exactly right for this eponymous role. He has a rather vague and abstracted appearance that subverts his looks (he was probably rather old for the part, but gets away with it). The audience can easily scent a loser. In Adam von Hochatten (Jean Galland) we can detect a winner, secure in his status and prospects.
Werther gets lost in drink and in an obsession with James Macpherson's forgery of Ossian. Max Ophuls carries us away in in a state of emotional and romantic resignation and despair to the music of (variously) J. S. Bach, W. F. Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (very apt, Beethoven and Schubert), and Haydn. The costumes are well done (if a little anachronistic), as is the art direction. Ophuls is able to convey an authentic feeling - if not for 1774, then perhaps 1804. We have for instance a scene with a slightly fustian grand duke (Phillippe Richard), and we are reminded that the old Germany was a mosaic of innumerable petty principalities. Some critics, notably Richard Roud, accused Ophuls of vulgarising this supreme novel. That was perhaps inevitable in any cinematic adaptation. However, this is a very fine effort. The most curious thing is why France was making a film of the Great German Novel at all, and particularly in 1938?
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