on 29 August 2006
'Ludwig' is one of the Italian director Visconti's later films, and in common with some of his other work (The Damned, Death in Venice), it is concerned with aristocratic decadence. You will rarely see a film which has been concieved on such a lavish, epic scale; telling the story of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his obsession with Wagner, pretty male favourites, and fairytale castles, it weighs in at over 4 hours on this release of the full length version. Previously, 'Ludwig' has been released in various forms, sometimes at half this length, but if you can invest the time to watch it all, the film does have a certain unique charm (although it is admittedly very slow). It also has to be said that the histrionic lead performance by Helmut Berger is probably one you will either love or hate, although Romy Schneider is wonderful as the enigmatic Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
This DVD release also carries 2 hours of excellent extra features, and although the picture isn't as sharp as might be hoped, and the dubbing can also be irritating (the soundtrack is in Italian but most of the actors appear to have performed in English or German), it is still well worth investigating, and is certainly essential to anyone interested in Italian cinema and Visconti in particular.
on 9 October 2007
This is a wonderful movie, in fact it was so compelling that three hours flew by and I found myself not wanting it to end.
Overall it's a quiet film with thoughtful performances and seems to be sincere in its attempt to show the central role of King Ludwig of Bavaria as a very sensitive, sad, ultimately self destructive King who loved art and music more than his throne. Here he is gently underplayed by Berger whose dignified portrayal is one of his best performances.
Whether madness or medicine we will never know but our sympathy for this tormented man is enlisted from the start. How much is historically accurate I am not sure but it seems to follow the well known facts and presents them dressed in all the splendour of the day.
Visconti strikes the right note from the very start with sumptuous costumes, ultra romantic settings, and beautiful actors - he has a craftsman's grip on his subject and never once does he allow the film to descend into a clichéd costume drama, nor does the usually irritating dubbing have any detrimental effect on the overall enjoyment of this film - all this accompanied by the strains of Wagner's monumental music and what more could you ask for?
The DVD is value for money, picture quality and sound are excellent and there is a bonus disc containing a documentary on Visconti. A must have for any serious movie collection.
Visconti's fabulous film sounds a strange note that puts it beyond all the clichés of costume drama. Ostensibly telling of the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria, it carries a great deal of weight in terms of the artistic and intellectual life of Germany in the later 19th century, which is felt to underpin events while also being held somewhat apart from them. There is a chamber-like quality to the way it is filmed, even the opening coronation containing a lot of close-ups and zooms that take us into the heart of the opulence. The effect is quite cosseted, and gives a sense of intimacy. This ties in both with the focus on the King's emotions, which were impossible to live out on all fronts, and the illumination of the human heart and soul that Wagner's music represents. Ludwig falls (ambiguously) for his cousin, Elizabeth of Austria, who is already married, but flirts with him. Her robustness and spirit contrast with his ineffectual leanings, emphasising his psychological fragility. Their scenes together are delightful and elusive, not least because of Romy Schneider's beauty - another aspect of fabulousness in the film. When she tries to visit him later in the film, going from one opulent castle to another in black and observing the extravagance with bemused benevolence, the effect of her veiled face and supreme grace combine with the ever-present Wagnerian strains to create a total magic, coming as it does when the sense of doom is already writ large.
Beauty is everywhere in this film, in effect - in Ludwig's haunted face in Helmut Berger's superb portrayal, in John Moulder-Brown's amazing allure as the King's younger brother, Otto, who goes mad, the actor Kainz whom the King falls for, and a number of other male servants whom he becomes infatuated with. Visconti presents these movements of the heart discreetly but in a way that points to the King's impasse and increasing isolation. Wagner is also a vital presence, of course (another remarkable performance - and physical likeness - from Trevor Howard), but one who becomes increasingly filtered through the way Ludwig hears the music. In the end there is a long scene where his music is played over and over on a music box, tinkly and prettified, as if the King's soul has been reduced to hearing it as a travesty of what it really is. However the music is constantly taken out of context, at least partially. We never hear a single sung note, the Tristan chord is frequently played on the piano, and the orchestral score sounded to me as though occasional changes were made. This is certainly the case with Schumann's Kinderszenen, heard near the beginning, which is constantly subject to minor distortions. Perhaps this is intended to mirror the subjectivity of Ludwig? At all events, it reflects the distortion of seeing lips move in English while hearing the dialogue in Italian. Normally this doesn't work, but here the distancing is oddly effective, relating to a certain clumsiness in the length of some of the scenes, yet drawing you in and holding your attention. It really is a riveting film that leaves you wanting to go back into its close-up look at one man's decline, with its enormous political resonances. In fact the style - both intimate and opaque - almost reminds me of the closeness to her subjects achieved by the photographer Nan Goldin, even if by quite different means: many roads lead to Rome, after all.
on 19 March 2014
Luchino Visconti's 1972 magnum opus, Ludwig marks the end of his so-called `German trilogy' which examines the sickness within German society which originated within the decay of the aristocratic ruling system, escalated with the rise of nationalism in the 1840s and finally burned out a century later. The Damned (1969) examines the very end of this process embodied in the rise of Nazism. Death in Venice (1971) is a Thomas Mann adaptation which spot-checks 1911 and the decadent fin-de-siècle era of a Europe about to slide into the oblivion of World War One. Ludwig turns the clock back even further to examine the period 1864-1886 and the reign of King Ludwig II, the last monarch to rule (or should we say misrule?) Bavaria. Taken all together the trilogy depicts the transition in Germany from Empire to Republic. Visconti doesn't deal with the post-World War Two restructuring, preferring instead to focus only on the decay that preceded it.
Both The Damned and Death in Venice were projects sponsored by Warner Brothers. They were made in the English language and had a famous English box office star at the center in Dirk Bogarde. The films have been looked after by Warner and have never been out of the catalog or cut in any way. Ludwig hasn't been so lucky. Sponsored by Italian television (RAI Trade) and made in Italian, the film's sprawling length (initially closing in on 300 minutes) and apparent lack of dramatic incident led to the film being cut to pieces by various hacks. Several versions lasting anything from 137 to 186 minutes have done the rounds over the years in cinemas and on VHS and DVD versions which distort the true aspect ratio and mangle the sound. At last, here we have the original version of Ludwig released by Infinity Arthouse as Visconti intended with the original aspect ratio of 2:35:1 and the complete running time of 255 minutes. The result is a revelation. It looks absolutely fantastic and emerges as one of the director's greatest achievements. The Mono sound is a slight drawback in a film where music is so important. However, to my ears, the result isn't as bad as what we have on the Death in Venice disc. I doubt if we'll ever have a better version of the film unless the same print is given at some point with the soundtrack digitally re-mastered on blu-ray. This is a marvelous opportunity then to re-evaluate this misunderstood work. Infinity Arthouse presents the film complete on one disc together with a second disc which lasts around 2 hours and contains three documentaries. These are on Visconti himself, the actress Silvano Mangano (Cosima Wagner in the film) and the long-time Visconti script collaborator Suso Cecchi D'Amico. Emanating from RAI, these are self-congratulatory portraits which need more critical bight to be ideally informative. Best by far is the one on d'Amico, mainly because she is such a character - great fun in interview and not afraid of being critical of her colleagues.
Ludwig has been derided for its length and its lack of dramatic tension, and it is indeed true that the `plot' of this 4-hour picture meanders very quietly. The film takes the form of an inquiry into the reign of King Ludwig II (Helmut Berger giving the performance of his life) given with talking heads speaking directly to camera setting out the official government case for his being unfit to rule. We first meet Ludwig being blessed by a Catholic priest on the eve of his coronation in 1864. A long scene depicts the pageantry of the occasion, but never shows the reaction of ordinary people awaiting their new monarch. A brass band playing off screen is the only indication that there is a world other than the interiors which we are being shown. Ludwig's first act as King is to summon the composer Richard Wagner to Munich. Then we move to Ludwig's country estate at Bad Ischl where he meets his cousin and childhood friend, Elisabeth (Romy Schneider reprising the role she played in three Austrian films on `Sisi' made in the 1950s). Empress of Austria, she nevertheless inflames Ludwig's passion. She flirts with him, but encourages him to consider her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) as a possible wife instead. In Munich Wagner (Trevor Howard looking the part magnificently) is creating problems, bleeding Ludwig's personal income with demands for money to pay off old debts and for living expenses. Wagner's position is made untenable by the fact that he is having sexual relations with Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano), the wife of the conductor Hans von Bülow (Mark Burns). Not only has she born one child to Wagner and is pregnant with another, but her husband (who conducted the première of Tristan und Isolde in Munich in 1865) cynically lives with them fully aware of the situation and not wanting to lose his job. Bavarian government ministers (who make up the talking heads in the film's inquiry) plot in the press and make it impossible for Wagner to stay. Wagner leaves for Switzerland in December, 1865.
The outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 shows Ludwig to be uninterested in state affairs, Bavaria waging the war on Austria's side and losing embarrassingly. This is an important step towards the eventual unification of Germany which Ludwig doesn't seem to care about. His regal irresponsibility is underlined by his brother Prince Otto (John Moulder-Brown) who returns from the fight disillusioned to find his older brother lost in fairy tale Wagnerian legend, surrounding himself with music boxes playing Wagner tunes and retreating ever-more completely from the real world. Ludwig's boyhood friend, Count Dürckheim (Helmut Griem) reminds the King of his duties and consequently Ludwig announces his engagement to Sophie as Elisabeth had recommended before. From this point the King goes into steady decline. He delays his engagement, eventually calling it off while he spends more and more time alone. He barely notices the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 which Bavaria fought in on Prussia's side. Their win and France's embarrassment leads to the formation of the German Empire in a ceremony at Versailles which all key Germanic states attend. Count Bismarck is made chancellor of a unified Germany with Emperor William I the presiding monarch. Ludwig doesn't attend the ceremony and Visconti consequently doesn't show any of it. He focuses instead on the King's mania for building castles - at Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and at Neuschwanstein. He lives mainly at Linderhof where he makes an underground Venusberg grotto (from the Wagner opera Tannhäuser) and spends his time immured in fantasy, only venturing out at night to see plays and operas at specially-commissioned private performances for his eyes only. We see his relationship with actor Joseph Kainz (Folker Bohnet) who he invites back to the castle to perform for him. Eventually the Bavarian ministers conceive a plot wherein three psychiatrists decree Ludwig unfit to rule (they never actually examine him) and remove him from Neuschwanstein Castle, taking him to Berg Castle on the shore of Lake Starnberg. The next evening in terrible rain, Ludwig goes missing by the lake. His corpse is later discovered together with that of his doctor who had accompanied him on a walk. In the film we are led to believe it is suicide, but actually some have said he was murdered and Visconti had originally shot a scene featuring his jacket with bullet holes clearly seen. This was cut however, and we are left with the idea that suicide by drowning was the likely cause of death even though we know for sure no water was found in the King's lungs. A strong swimmer, he `drowned' in water that was only knee-deep. He died in 1886, aged 40.
Visconti's main objective in the film is to depict the decay of the ruling aristocracy which was felt throughout Europe, perhaps most damagingly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He spotlights Bavaria because his concern is not merely with the causes of World War One, but with the rise of Nazism and the collapse of specifically German society. Death in Venice is a novella whose main character (Aschenbach) is from Munich, as was Thomas Mann himself. The Damned depicts the Nazi rise to power and it should be remembered that their powerbase was located in Bavaria - in Munich and in Nuremburg. It's not surprising then that Visconti continues the Bavaria connection with Ludwig. The main link between the worlds of all three films is Richard Wagner and everything that he represents. For a director of Visconti's generation and left wing persuasion the connection between Wagner and Nazism would have been instantly recognized. Visconti gave The Damned the German title Götterdämmerung. This was the title of Wagner's last Ring opera and the storyline is partly cribbed from it. Hitler made the Wagner family, especially Wagner's daughter-in-law Winifried Wagner, close personal friends and Bayreuth became a second home for him. Bayreuth of course is the Wagner center of the world. Located in Upper Bavaria, it's the place where the composer built his opera house to stage his works in an annual festival (which survives to this day) and the place where he lived from 1871 until his death in 1883. Both buildings (the Festspielhaus and the Haus Wahnfried) were part financed by Ludwig. In fact the connection between Ludwig and Wagner was even greater than the film really shows. When Wagner was forced to leave Munich in 1865 Ludwig seriously considered abdicating, but Wagner talked him out of it. Ludwig bought the house at Tribschen in Switzerland for Wagner to move into almost immediately. He paid for the premières of all his operas from Tristan und Isolde onwards and even gave the orchestra and chorus of the opera house in Munich to Wagner to use at his Bayreuth Festival. It is no exaggeration to say that Ludwig was Wagner's main benefactor without whom nothing would have been possible. The Ring may never have been completed, there would have been no Bayreuth Festival and the opera Parsifal would have sounded completely different (written as it was specifically for that acoustic). Ludwig squandered a fortune on Wagner and was thought mad for doing so. This madness is at the root of the decay which is the subject of Visconti's film.
Visconti sees the madness and the subsequent decay of the aristocracy as coming from two sources in Ludwig. The first is the hereditary madness of Ludwig's family. In the film Wagner describes his King as `the last eccentric of a family of eccentrics'. Ludwig I had been famously mad in the 18th century and the history of the royal family was one of centuries of in-breeding. It was known for even first cousins to marry each other. Visconti's film shows Ludwig to have a cold relationship with his mother and an infatuation with his first cousin, Elisabeth. His brother Otto also goes insane in the course of the film. Both of these things are slight exaggerations of fact. Elisabeth was known as a childhood friend of Ludwig, but there is no evidence he burned a torch for her. All the evidence points towards a complete disinterest in women coupled with a strong homosexual inclination - something which he had to repress, especially after 1870 because Prussia saw that as illegal. Also, Otto wasn't exactly insane. He was very sensitive and prone to nervous attacks, but after Ludwig's death he was enthroned albeit only temporarily before their uncle Luitpold took over as regent. It is also a matter of conjecture if Ludwig really was insane himself. Visconti's exaggerations may take liberties with fact, but they do succeed in providing a platform from which he can launch an altogether deeper investigation into the nature of the madness at the heart of aristocratic society. This involves quite a sophisticated realization on screen of the revolutionary effects of Wagner's music. This is the second cause of the madness and the decay.
In the film the first music we hear as the credits play out is a dissonance played on a piano followed by two notes. These are part of the famous `Tristan chord', the very first notes we hear of Tristan und Isolde. This has to be the single most famous chord in the history of music. Music up to this point had been made out of chords, all of which resolve harmonically into recognizable keys. With the Tristan chord we have two dissonances, the first of which is resolved in the chord that follows, but the second of which is left hanging in the air. This has the effect of only part-satisfying the listener. We feel pleasure and frustration in equal measure as the composer leaves us ever-hungry for more. Wagner took his little idea and made a 4 hour opera from this process, the chord only resolving right at the very end of Act III when everyone is dead, the story is over and there is nothing left to say. The result is a miracle of sustained dramatic tension unsurpassed in the history of music. Though accepted now in the 1860s people (even professional musicians) couldn't understand these weird successions of notes. Singers couldn't remember them and orchestral musicians couldn't play them. A staging of the opera in Vienna had to be abandoned after no less than 77 rehearsals. According to Bryan Magee (in Wagner and Philosophy): `It is from that time that the idea dates that Wagner was seriously mad, and also the idea that he was some kind of musical anarchist who, if he were allowed to get his way, would destroy all that was best in the Western musical tradition'. This `madness' in music increased in Wagner's last work, Parsifal (where a long passage from the Act III prelude is without key) and then beyond his death through the symphonies of Mahler and to the atonality of the second Viennese school (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). Atonalism became the lingua franca of 20th century music and the composers' reason for producing such music was always given as `the need to go beyond Wagner'.
Wagner and his Tristan then represent the death of music and the birth of a kind of modern `anti-music'. Visconti had already dealt with this in Death in Venice by turning Aschenbach from a writer into the composer Gustav Mahler and by alluding to Wagner's own death in Venice in 1883. In Ludwig he goes back to source with a careful depiction of how Wagner upset the balance not only of the King, but of a whole social order. Look at the scene near the beginning of the film when Ludwig first meets Elisabeth. She is riding a horse and the music we hear on the soundtrack is Robert Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) for piano. This is a safe `innocent' Romantic work, completely tonal. Schumann wrote the piece for his beloved Clara to bring back childhood memories (Ludwig is talking about childhood memories with Elisabeth at this time) and to look forward to a `peaceful, tender and happy [future]' (Schumann's words to Clara) together with each other (such as Ludwig is hoping for with Elisabeth). The music continues as Ludwig and Elisabeth take a midnight ride in a forest. Ludwig starts to talk about Wagner and Visconti cuts to Wagner waiting in Munich for his patron to return. This is actually the first time we meet Wagner and the von Bülows and immediately the soundtrack starts to play the love music from Act II of Tristan (without voices). At first the music is connected with the fact that Cosima has just told Wagner she is pregnant again (actually with Siegfried), but then Visconti cuts back to Ludwig and Elisabeth with it still playing. The idea here is that love for members of the aristocracy used to be pure and innocent as represented by Schumann, but it has become dirty and twisted as represented by Wagner's `sick' music, attached as it is with adultery. Cosima is carrying Wagner's child despite being married to Hans von Bülow and still living with him. Visconti's use of the Tristan music for Ludwig and Elisabeth's love scene strongly implies decadence, because remember Elisabeth is also married to another.
The cousins kiss by the lake and Ludwig (identifying himself with Tristan) pledges to wait eternally for her to come to him. This is the beginning of his infatuation and his madness and for the rest of the film he imagines himself the sick Tristan of Act III of that opera waiting in vain for his beloved to come to him. Ludwig is taken to task by Dürckheim for dishonorably not taking an interest in the Austro-Prussian War, in effect for abandoning his country. This scene goes on for a very long time and makes no sense in terms of film-structure unless we recognize it as correlating precisely with the sermon King Mark gives Tristan after finding his loyal servant in flagrante delicto with his betrothed, Isolde in the second half of Act II of the opera. Very clearly Visconti and his very literary screen writers (Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D'Amico) establish their film in musical terms with long arias and duets all structured around depicting how Wagner broke with safe and innocent established patterns (represented by the use of Schumann) and forged a revolutionary new music of the future which was mad, decadent and somehow sinister in its implications.
These implications become very clear if we know that Tristan und Isolde is completely saturated with the pessimistic and decidedly morbid philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer's most famous concept was the idea of the renunciation of the Will as being the only way Man can bear existence. The Will is that thing that makes Man desire things. But this desire is unquenchable in that it can never be fulfilled. This dooms Man to a lifetime of perpetual longing and suffering leading only to disappointment and despair. The idea is that if Man removes (renounces) the desire he removes the source of his unhappiness. Thus the good man will retreat far from the world, give up what he desires most including any attempt at solving life's problems through political or sexual means to arrive at a kind of inner peace. In Tristan und Isolde, the lovers are in love from start to finish. In the glare of day (especially in Act I) they have control over their emotions in that they must hide their adulterous feelings to survive in society. This unsated sexual desire fuels a death-drive, but Isolde's maid Brangäne exchanges the death potion for a love potion and suddenly all awareness of social barriers come crashing down and the two lovers are given half of Act II to voice their passions to each other in the darkness of the night. Here we have a division between what Man can see and control (Schopenhauer called it the phenomena) and what men can't see or control (the noumena). Both states emphasize love (ie; sexual desire) as a destructive most violent statement of the Will and whether it is consummated or not, it will lead only to suffering because desire can never be fulfilled. Love in Tristan und Isolde is something that is suffered, not enjoyed and the lovers are victims of emotions which they cannot control, and which can only be relieved by death.
Schopenhauer's philosophy had a huge effect on intellectual thought in the 19th century. Wagner himself was considered much more than a composer. He wrote his own libretti which made him a poet, he wrote more books than he composed operas and he sounded off on every subject under the sun. Up until the 1840s he was a Left Hegelian and espoused Feuerbach as well as siding with revolutionaries like Bakunin and Proudhon in his nationalist beliefs which he fought for on the barricades of the Dresden Revolt of 1849. This side of Wagner was explored by Visconti in The Damned. In 1854 Wagner's world view changed when he read Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation. He renounced most of his prior convictions and started to preach the gospel of negativity, finding a champion to inspire his thoughts in fellow Schopenhauer addict, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche's mature philosophy is the diametric opposite of that of Schopenhauer, and it's surely significant that the philosopher's break from his father-figure Wagner coincided with this renunciation. Suffice it to say, all three figures are key in explaining the fin-de-siècle decadence that fell over cultured European high society and Visconti certainly depicts the latter stages of Ludwig's life with this in mind.
In the film Ludwig's love for Wagner leads him to identify completely with the character of Tristan and Visconti's treatment is couched in Schopenhauerian terms. Just as Tristan's longing for Isolde is killing him, so Ludwig's longing for Elisabeth is killing him as well. Ludwig's suffering keeps him in dark places, in claustrophobic rooms and tight spaces. He only ventures out at night because he can indulge in the fantasy world of his own noumenon. Daylight (the phenomena of the real world) blinds him and gives him great pain. So he retreats from his regal duties, renouncing his Will as his country loses a war and is consumed by its great neighbor to the north - Prussia. Tristan and his Schopenhauerian twin Amfortas (from the later Parsifal) both carry stomach wounds caused by spears which gradually kill them. The wounds are a visualization of the longing (Schopenhauer called it `Sehnen') they feel for what they can't have. Visconti highlights Ludwig's wound as lying in his teeth. His teeth are rotting away and have led to the drastic treatment of using chloroform to ease the pain. The King did have teeth problems in real life and some have said the treatment contributed to his mental instability, but for Visconti it makes a perfect equivalent for Tristan's stomach wound. Then there is the death-drive visualized by Visconti by having Ludwig voice his suicide urge to his brother at Berg Castle after Bavaria had just lost the Austro-Prussian war. He says Otto will be King soon in a scene that follows him finding a servant taking a midnight swim in Lake Starnberg. This is the very spot where Ludwig will die at the end of the film. Suicide is forbidden by Schopenhauer, but Nietzsche certainly makes clear that if a person is useless to society then suicide is useful for the common good. Then there is the treatment of religion in the film. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wagner were all fundamentally anti-Christian. Christian faith is something that confuses and confounds Ludwig. His father was a Catholic and his mother is a Protestant. When Elisabeth is flirting with him she teases him about the rumor that he is still a virgin. `I'm a Catholic' he replies, which implies he doesn't believe in sex before marriage. This is hypocritical however, as he harbors obvious homosexual feelings and he spends long hours contemplating suicide. Both homosexuality and suicide are forbidden by the Catholic Church which puts him in Schopenhauer/Nietzsche/Wagner's camp after all.
Visconti is careful to emphasize that although Ludwig sees himself as Tristan, he was never an intellectual and probably never grasped the deeper philosophical meanings of the operas he loved. It must have been tempting for Visconti to visualize on screen famous events such as the premières of Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, and most of all, the first Ring cycle performed at Bayreuth in 1876. He resists the temptation including only a realization of Wagner's Christmas present to Cosima - a performance of the Siegfried Idyll on the stairs of Triebschen. However, for the most part he sticks to the brief of depicting the life of Ludwig and only features music from the two Wagner operas which were his favorites - Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Lohengrin was especially dear to the `Swan King' as Ludwig is nicknamed by posterity. At the start of the film Ludwig's summoning of Wagner from Stuttgart to Munich is accompanied by the opening bars of the prelude of Act I. Later we witness Sophie singing `In fernem Land' from Lohengrin's farewell scene from Act III. The singing is so awful and Ludwig squirms so painfully that we know their relationship is doomed from the start. Later in the Venusberg grotto built in Linderhof Castle we see the sick King on a swan boat floating around a pool while we hear Wolfram von Eschenbach's `O du mein holde Abendstern' from Act III of Tannhäuser played on an organ. This is significant because Eschenbach is singing about his unobtainable love, the heroine of the opera named Elisabeth. Visconti depicts his subject in deep philosophical terms, but he never neglects to show that Ludwig was at heart just a deluded romantic whose addiction to Wagner has disabled his mind and brought the aristocratic order he represents into disrepute. Ludwig was not the only important figure to be `infected' by the intellectual world as represented by Richard Wagner. To a large extent Art is nothing but a reflection of the society that creates it so that if one is `sick', then so must be the other.
Forgive me for getting side-tracked onto Wagner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but I do feel a grasp of their world is essential to really understand Visconti's masterpiece. There is almost nothing on the net about this film and no avenue into the intellectual background except through decent books on the director like Henry Bacon's fine study, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (1998) and Geoffrey Nowell Smith's Luchino Visconti (2003, 3rd ed.). I'm guessing those of you who are not Wagnerians will have a hard time swallowing the 4 hours of decay which Visconti gives us and I hope this review will give some helpful pointers. The film's one great strength which can be appreciated even if you don't know the background is the gorgeous way it looks. All thanks to Armando Nannuzzi's extraordinary camerawork, Piero Tosi's superbly-detailed costumes and Mario Chiari and Mario Scisci's sumptuous art direction for providing Visconti with the technical means to realize his fabulous sense of mise-en-scène. Visconti's commitment to his subject is total and there is no doubting that he pours a lot of his own personal experiences into the film. He was an aristocrat himself and we can be sure the connoisseurship of detail is exactly right all the way down to the use of real bone china and silver tea spoons. He shot the film on the locations where the action took place (even Berg Castle and Lake Starnberg) and what we see is absolutely authentic. In the realization of Ludwig and Elisabeth's would-be love affair Visconti no doubt revisits emotions he once felt when he was young and had to call off his engagement because of objections raised by his future in-laws. Then there is the real-life affair Visconti had with Berger which blossomed with this film. Visconti's identification with his subject is complete and the triumphant results transcend any quibbles we may have over pacing and self-indulgence. It's an essential addition to your collection. Now, can somebody release Vaghe Stella del Orsa (Sandra) (1965) properly in its original aspect ratio? And where on earth is The Outsider (1967)? The only place we can currently see this one is on You Tube. Ludwig isn't the only Visconti film to have been neglected down the years...
on 12 January 2012
I like this film !
Despite that it is a long (around 4 hours: not as long as the time given on the box !) film on a sad theme, I find it eminently watchable.
Luchino Visconti is a master of detail and sensitivity (and atmosphere ?)
Ludwig lives a very privileged existence but he is a fragile creature.
He lives a life full of obligations, obligations he often doesn't actually agree with, as in the scenes where he attempts to console his cousin about the war they are involved in, a war that is literally destroying his cousin.
A young man barely out of his teens.
Neither of them actually want the war, but they have no choice, they are driven by events and politics (what's new ?)
The film also examines Ludwig's difficulty with human relationships.
He seems a bit lost really, and though he has very strong feelings for his very attractive, and rather worldly half-cousin the Duchess Elizabeth (later Empress of Austria) she is already taken, and puts him on to the Duchess Sophie which never really takes off, despite the fact that they become engaged.
Poor Sophie has much stronger feelings for Ludwig than the other way around.
Ludwig also finds some of his close male associates more interesting, and some are happy to take advantage.
The whole story is set against scenery of the Bavarian royal palaces, and the mountains.
It certainly seems to invoke the opulence and spirit of the time (mid 1800's) at the high end of European society.
A number of scenes are shot at night, some with snow falling.
I find them very atmospheric.
Throughout the film Ludwig's mental state is sadly deteriorating, but this again, is portrayed in a very sensitive way.
It is a beautiful film, despite it's sad subject.
A sensitive portrayal of human frailty, amid privilege and luxurious surroundings.
Ludwig died when he was just 40 years old, in mysterious circumstances.
Arguably Visconti's greatest film, this review is of the two-disc Infinity Arthouse release. The film itself on this disc is 230 minutes long. The packaging gives a timing of 370 minutes but there are over two hours of extras on the second disc, details of which I give at the end. Henry Bacon, in his book `Visconti' (1998) writes that, "Several versions of this mutilated film are in circulation, at least one in German (130 minutes) and one in English (150 minutes). They are badly structured, have no rhythm, and are even somewhat difficult to follow." He praises the four-hour version in Italian, which is presumably the one we have here
For a film that is supposedly the third in Visconti's German trilogy (after `The damned' and `Death in Venice'), this version comes nevertheless with an Italian soundtrack with English subtitles, and has the usual ADR and dubbing problems that plague many of Visconti's films. This is a shame, given the differing poetry between words spoken in German and those in Italian, although Henry Bacon praises this Italian-spoken dubbed version where the language "is beautiful and unpretentious".
The movie opens almost immediately with a Visconti set-piece of intimate but ostentatious ornamentation, as courtiers and high churchmen play their parts art the coronation of the new nineteen-year-old King Ludwig of Bavaria, played by Helmut Berger in what is probably his career best role. (His words are spoken in Italian by the actor Giancarlo Giannini.) Outside we hear the church bells ringing and the brass bands playing in celebration, but inside we hear all the smalltalk and see the nods and the smiles and the looks that hide as well as show what people are really thinking. It is beautifully shot with immense attention to details in terms of costume, furnishings, etc
Trevor Howard is Wagner. Somehow, there is something initially comical about the Italian coming out of his mouth, but one soon becomes immune to it as the film deepens and one is drawn into the story. Wagner initially calls Ludwig "an angel, a young God descended from Olympus", but later, when relationships turn sour, Ludwig is "a brainless youth" in Wagner's estimations.
Helmut Berger is marvellous as Ludwig: sometimes prissy, always prim, always self-centred, and in love with Sissi, his cousin and Empress of Austria. He always possesses a princely poise throughout the film. His eyes say as much, sometimes more, than the words he says. Whether he was truly mad is not for me to say. Certainly, he was not in a position to express openly his true character. Was the power of conformity too great for him?
But what makes this film different from others in Visconti's oeuvre is that the story is told by interspersing the drama with comments made face to camera by state officials about their opinions of Ludwig's reign and personality, as if adding a measure of historical veracity to the scenes unfolding before us. It also adds to the conspiracy between the players of roles in the Bavarian hierarchy and us the audience, as if we are acting behind Ludwig's back. (Remarkably, one of these witnesses says to camera, "Spending continued at an alarming rate. For example, he would give huge amounts of money to a waiter because he had a pretty face and looked smart, or to an actor whose voice he liked." Is this an in-joke? Isn't this how Visconti and Berger allegedly met?)
But then, an hour and forty minutes into the film, Berger/Ludwig addresses the camera himself directly: "I have not understood yet how they will do it, but I know they will. This is their aim." And then he turns immediately to the prostitute sent to his bedroom to introduce him to sex prior to his marriage, "I can only watch, fascinated, as they move quietly and cautiously. It is as if I was watching them while they build the scaffold on which they will hang me." It's quite an unnerving moment! The film progresses to its expected conclusion, but the ending is shockingly sudden, with no chance for the viewer to comprehend sympathetically with the film's conclusion: the credits roll too soon.
The films primary colours are browns, blacks, and greys, with many winter skies of a mute blue to match the uniforms of the guards. There is thus a rightfully elegiac feel to the film, beauty in decay, a Visconti trope. It is true by and large to location, being filmed in Bavaria and Austria.
Now what about those extras? First up is a sixty-minute subtitled film made in 1999 about Visconti with extracts from many of his films and comments from collaborators and colleagues. There is no mention whatsoever of Helmut Berger in this film! Secondly, in a fifty-minute subtitled film called in a series called `Italian Portraits', Suso Cecchi d'Amico, screenwriter for many great Italian films since the war, describes working with Visconti on many of his films. Finally, the third extra is a thirty-minute subtitled film called `The Scent of Roses' about the actress Silvana Mangano. As well as appearing in `Ludwig', she was in Visconti's `Death in Venice' and `Conversation Piece'
Although Visconti tells the life story of Ludwig III as a story of slow decay, at the same time he celebrates Ludwig's aesthetic utopia. Since even if the eternal opposition between style and substance is apparent, he tries to show an elegance relieved every reality. Visconti wanted to expose Ludwig not as a false-led dreamer, but pays tribute to the psychotic unconditional nature of his idealism. At the same time the movie represents the incompatibility of his vision with a full life in the real world. However, the Wagner's stage settings which Ludwig loved so much are not to be seen in the film. Essentially for Viscontis project was only the stage setting, Ludwig has subjected himself. In the real life it was doomed, but in a movie film it triumphs in decadent majesty.
While being very interesting in its approach, the movie is far too long and too heavy for my taste. Helmut Berger can convince as Ludwig, but really amazing is the performance of Romy Schneider. How far she has come from the "Sissi" imagine to portrait the Empress in such a way. Such amazing.
So all in all, artistic and interesting, but a bit too heavy. No light entertainment.
on 5 October 2008
The web-page info on the contents of the 2nd "Special Features" disc is full of errors. It contains 3 items:
1 - Luchino Visconti (documentary directed by Carlo Lizzani)
2 - Italian Portraits: Suso Cecchi d'Amico
3 - Silvana Mangano: The Scent of Primroses
All 3 are in Italian with English sub-titles. The Luchino Visconti documentary is very interesting, and I have seen it on other DVDs. However the real treasure is the documentary on Silvana Mangano, a wonderful and extremely welcome rare glimpse into the life of this amazing actress who was little-known outside of Italy.
on 28 August 2014
A wonderful film about one of the forgotten figures of recent european history, Ludwig II, the Swan King of Bavaria. The film itself is in italian and german characters speaking in very strong italian at times seems most incongruous but if you can get past that, youll love it.
on 1 August 2014
I am a fan of Visconti, and this lived up to expectation, I might even say it have now become my favourite. I knew little about Ludwig II before I watched it and as a result I now have on order The Swan King by Christopher McIntosh, as I found him so fascinating and want to learn more. Its a very long film and quite slow paced (I suggest watching it in two halves) but well worth it. Even if you're not interested in the subject the cinematography, locations, set pieces, acting and costume are all utterly breathtaking and its worth watching just for that reason. If only they made films like this anymore.