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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Rare Spirits

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

Le Havre

Young Goethe In Love

A familiar shock arrived with a documentary called Paul Goodman Changed My Life. (He touched my life, but he didn’t really change it.) The shock was in realizing yet again that a figure once important is now virtually forgotten. In the middle of the last century, Goodman was very widely recognized as a kind of polymath critic. His sharp comments on a surprising range of topics, his analytical writings on education, politics, city planning, psychology, meant much to many. One of his books, Growing Up Absurd, a critique of principles and methods in the treatment of young people, became part of the text of the time. But that was not all. He published novels and books of poetry, had plays produced.

Through all Goodman’s work ran the sensibility of an anarchist, a radical in all ways who stayed free of party bondage. Susan Sontag, who revered him, calls him in this film “a professional outsider.” True: and few such are so embraced today as Goodman was. Also, there are now few to whom he is, so to speak, still alive.

The director Jonathan Lee has built a film memorial to him. It is of no particular filmic distinction: it is mostly a series of talking heads. But the vitality of this method depends on the talking. Here it is generally pungent and enlightening. Among those who appear are Jason Epstein (who was Goodman’s editor), William F. Buckley Jr., Michael Walzer, Grace Paley, Ned Rorem, two Goodman daughters, and Noam Chomsky. Their comments imply a lament that, though there are dissenting voices aplenty today, none has quite the large influence of Goodman, and few are also active in the arts.

It was in film that I had a sort of contact with him. I edited an anthology of American film criticism in 1971 and included three pieces by Goodman, among them “The Proustian Camera Eye,” in which he discerned five “Proustian properties of cinema.” I sent a copy of the book to Harold Pinter some time later, whom I knew slightly, and was surprised to hear from him that he had just finished a screenplay of Proust (excellent—published but never produced) and that he was sending me a copy. He asked that, when I had finished with it, I forward it to Goodman, whose Proust article had much impressed him. I had to tell Pinter that Goodman had died in 1972, but I was taken by the fact that this writer whose outstanding work was in other fields had perceptions that affected a genius of art.

The past is crammed with millions of names of people who once mattered. Most of them are of little relevance today, but Lee’s film reminds us that we are still indebted to some of them—not least for the fact that they once existed.

THE FINNISH DIRECTOR Aki Kaurismäki has earned a reputation, well-deserved, as a ruthless observer of customs and codes in his native country. Accomplished in a way that gave a particular edge to his rigor, he became outstanding in a wave of truth-tellers in film.

Now, like some other nationals who have moved, he presents a film made abroad—in France. Here he has applied his realistic technique to a story that in other hands might have been syrupy. Le Havre takes place in the city of that name because Kaurismäki says he had scoured Europe for the best setting for the story. Well, the city’s very name is pertinent.

The subject is double: the condition of exiles today and person-smuggling. In Le Havre lives Marcel, a mature man of some cultivation who now, for rather murky reasons, works contentedly as a bootblack. His adoring wife, Arletty, shares their modest but adequate home. Marcel gets involved protectively with Idrissa, an African boy of about eleven, a fugitive from authorities who want to deport him back to his homeland. Idrissa, however, wants to get to England, and Marcel lends a hand as he can, all the time evading authorities, too.

The African boy and the philosophical bootblack—what a recipe for pastry. But Kaurismäki works for truth. This situation could actually happen, and it highlights a problem that plagues Europe. The director helps by giving the boy tacit gumption and the man a comprehension of the whole current refugee mess.

Some have said that Kaurismäki shows the influence of several classic French directors, to which he replied that he hopes so. For myself, he is simply the same director that he was, now in France—once again, in fact: he has worked there before—daring to make a picture with a few touches that are reminders of past French pictures. Note that Marcel’s wife is given the name of a French film star of the past.

We are so held by the film’s impact that its ending, surprise or not, is like a bonus. And there is a counterpointed account of an illness that comes to Arletty whose conclusion is itself presented with a kind of bow to the viewer.

She is played by Kati Outinen, who has been in nine of Kaurismäki’s films and who embodies a wistful courage. Idrissa is Blondin Miguel, who is whatever he needs to be at all times. The picture is strengthened by André Wilms as Marcel, another Kaurismäki veteran, one of those valued screen actors whose very presence is a kind of guarantee that the world has not been abandoned for Movieland.

THE GERMAN DIRECTOR Philipp Stölzl, who made the Alpine drama North Face, has moved to what may be the best-known period in Goethe’s incredibly teeming life, from May to September 1772 in the small town of Wetzlar. Here Goethe, already a licentiate in law, was sent by his lawyer father to get straightened out—to delve in law and forget about writing plays that no one would produce and poems that no one would publish. In Wetzlar Goethe met and fell in love with a young woman named Lotte Buff, then went through the experiences that led to the writing of The Sorrows of Young Werther, his first and probably most famous novel.

Stölzl, with Alexander Dydyna and Christoph Müller, has constructed a screenplay that deals somewhat elastically with the facts; but it gives Goethe youthful audacity and breeze. He has relatively little drive toward the imperial future ahead of him. Living each day as fully as possible is often enough for him. Yet we do get some of the spirit of the whole man and some sense of relationships in the Romantic Age.

At a dance Goethe meets Lotte and is charmed. So is his friend, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, but Goethe does not know it. So, too, is his law-court superior, Kestner, but Goethe does not know this, either. Lotte is the daughter of an impoverished widower and takes care of her multiple siblings. Each of the three lovers tries to advance his cause, with Goethe the only one with amorous success. Eventually, however, Lotte accepts the proposal of the wealthy Kestner in order to help her family. Jerusalem, crushed, shoots himself. Goethe considers suicide but instead writes. It seems—in this film, anyway—that the original title of his book was The Sorrows of Young Goethe; he changes the name. His own story, as we have seen, is hardly the same as Werther’s; still, it apparently suggested the novel.

Goethe returns with his father to their home in Frankfurt, where a mob, clutching copies of his novel, is waiting to cheer him wildly. In fact, it was published in two volumes without his name on it; but the film, we can say, symbolizes its later blazing reception. Lotte, who had a dozen children with Kestner, met Goethe only once again, years later, when he was famous. (See Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar.)

Alexander Fehling, tall, vivacious, good-looking, plays Goethe: he is fully aware of what the role requires and he fulfills it. The last iota of personality always arrives for him. Miriam Stein gives Lotte the unostentatious appeal that makes her swains credible.

Stylistically, the most engaging aspect of the picture is Stölzl’s direction. He was clearly determined not to make a series of historical postcards. The film moves. The vast majority of the shots are in motion—the camera, the actors, or usually both. This does much to sustain the atmosphere of youth, of Goethe’s physicality, his energy. The picture gives us, admittedly in a somewhat freehand manner, a temperamental glimpse—the temperament of the young man who was to become, as one English critic said, “the last of the great universal geniuses.”

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.