Category: biopics / In category: 5 of 10 / Overall: 79 of 100
For anyone who’s not familiar with it, ‘Ludwig’ is Luchino Visconti’s epic account of the eccentric life and mysterious death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It stars, in the title role, that monarch of the two-by-four timber yard school of acting, Helmut Berger. It’s glacially paced. Whole scenes play out as dialogue-heavy tableaux. It runs nearly four hours.
Even by Visconti’s standards, it’s a long haul. In the time it would take to watch ‘Death in Venice’ (two hours five minutes), Ludwig has just got started building the elaborate fairytale castles that would bankrupt his kingdom. By the time the sweeping saga that is ‘The Leopard’ (two hours forty minutes*) would be ending, Ludwig hasn’t even got round to his little homo-erotic interlude in a log cabin with a bunch of strapping young men, some of whom engage in a little knee-slapping morris dancing (I am not making this up). There’s still his removal from the throne, incarceration and unexplained death to come.
Nonetheless ‘Ludwig’ exerts a strange fascination. It’s as if, in Visconti’s obsession with painting the screen with the tiniest of historical details, a form of hypnosis is taking place. “Painting” is an apposite description. Visconti and his cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi treat each frame of celluloid as a Rennaissance artist would a vast canvas. Even at its most static, ‘Ludwig’ is a work of exceptional visual beauty.
It’s a shame, though, that so much of the film is static. As Visconti proved with ‘Death in Venice’, made a year before ‘Ludwig’ in 1971, the movement of a character through a milieu that defines or destroys them (as in von Aschenbach’s melancholy peregrinations through Venice) can say so much more than screeds of expository dialogue. There is a superb, wordless sequence in ‘Ludwig’ following the resignation of a member of the monarch’s cabinet over the grotesque misspending on the ornate, ostentatious and unoccupied castles. The individual in question fires off a report to Ludwig’s cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), before he steps down. Elisabeth, perturbed, decides to visit one of the castles for herself. A beautiful, somewhat imperious woman, bedecked in finery and attended by a lady-in-waiting, she is dwarfed by the opulence of Ludwig’s chosen style of architecture; rendered almost insignificant by the grand baroque folly of room after cavernous room. Her reaction slowly ebbs from childish delight to a wordless realization of the extent of her cousin’s obsession.
Romy Schneider offers arguably the most memorable performance in the film, even though she was initially reluctant to participate. She had already played Elisabeth between 1955 and 1957 in Ernst Marischka’s trilogy ‘Sissi’, ‘Sissi: The Young Empress’ and ‘Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress’ – if you’ve never seen them, or the single-film English-dubbed edit ‘Forever My Love’, then imagine a chocolate box morphing into several reels of film and you’re halfway there – and struggled to prove herself a serious actress as a result. Fortunately, Visconti persuaded her and the result is a flintier and more penetrating interpretation of Elisabeth, the luminous Schneider reclaiming in fine style the role that almost typecast her.
Hers is not the only commendable performance. Gert Frobe (of ‘Goldfinger’ fame) does fine work as Father Hoffmann, the priest who tries to inspire Ludwig to lead his people rather than succumb to his own personal predilections. Trevor Howard is excellent as Wagner, likewise Silvana Mangano as Cosima von Bulow (later to be Mrs Wagner). Visconti includes – with no narrative reason but reveling in the sheer loveliness of the moment – Wagner’s Christmas gift of the newly composed ‘Siegfried-Idyll’ to Cosima, musicians lining the stairs and hallway of their house to serenade her as she emerges from her boudoir.
Berger’s performance might have proved the film’s Achille’s heel, but while his line readings are sometimes the stuff of amateur dramatics, he embodies Ludwig’s emotional anguish, sexual ambiguity and mental fragility to surprisingly impressive effect.
Overall, ‘Ludwig’ contains much of what usually leaves me cold about biopics, including its superannuated running time. In the hands of a journeyman director and without the stellar supporting performances, ‘Ludwig’ would be a drag. As it is, it demands enough from the viewer that you can’t just watch it casually. Visconti is one of those deeply committed, profoundly intelligent directors for whom the medium is an art form; his work sorts out the cineastes from the film fans.
*I’m basing this on the UK release most commonly shown on British TV. To the best of my knowledge, there are at least half a dozen versions of ‘The Leopard’ of vastly different running times. Visconti’s original cut clocked in at three hours and twenty five minutes – which is still shorter than ‘Ludwig’.