In 1772, we find the young German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe flunking out of law school and getting drunk with his friends. He's a free spirit trapped in a stringent world where class is everything. All Goethe wants to do is write poems and get them published. But his stern father sends him away to a small town where he is accepted to work at a provincial law firm. There he befriends fellow law student Wilhelm Jerusalem. Goethe also meets, and falls in love with, the beautiful Lotte Buff. She in turn falls for the hopelessly romantic Goethe but, unbeknownst to him, is promised to marry Albert Kestner, Goethe's superior at the law firm.
It all adds up to anguished love, as his friend Jerusalem also suffers a failed love affair with a married woman. Goethe transforms their travails into a grand masterpiece, the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
At first glace, Young Goethe in Love seems like Germany's version of Shakespeare in Love. The parallels of the two poets and their literary works of genius are certainly there. But where Shakespeare in Love was drawn from a largely fictitious take on how the Bard came to write Romeo & Juliet, Young Goethe portrays mostly real events in the German poet's early life that inspired him to write his breakthrough novel.