Lost in the Movies: Ludwig


Seen in the light of of the lugubrious Death of Venice, the impressive but stoic Leopard, and the emotionally devastating Rocco and His Brothers, the decadence and historical pageantry of Ludwig can seem almost refreshing. True, it has its psychological intensity, what with the physical and mental decline undergone by its hero (a deeply romantic, and possibly insane, Bavarian royal of the 19th century, whose reign saw his little kingdom swallowed up by the new Prussian-led German state). And at four hours long, it's hardly a sprightly jog through the park. Yet the film is lush, lavish, and entertaining - its long runtime absorbing due to the hero's wildness (he represents all the opposite tendencies of the aristocracy when compared to the melancholy, savvy, and dignified Burt Lancaster in The Leopard: self-indulgence, withdrawal into fantasy, irresponsibility).

Not everyone seems to feel this way, and the film was widely savaged on its initial release in 1972. Actually, this may be the rare case in which the longer version of the film makes it move at a more enjoyable pace, simply because the viewer knows what's going on, with all the footage finally in place. Take Roger Ebert's perplexed description of the cut released in the 70s:
In a film filled with unresolved scenes, one stands out. Visconti shows Elizabeth of Austria arriving in her carriage at one of Ludwig's castles. She enters, walks upstairs, and stops at the threshold of an incredibly long, ornate hall. She waits there (first in medium shot, then in long shot) for what seems like a good minute. After a while, there is the off-screen cackle of maniacal laughter. Nothing else happens. Fade out; the scene, the visit and the occasion are never referred to again. I wonder if that was Ludwig laughing, or Visconti.
In the version screened at the Museum of Fine Arts last weekend, the scene was perfectly clear: Elizabeth (Ludwig's cousin and his platonic love) arrives at the castle; Ludwig, in his decomposed and debauched state, refuses to come out but invites her, through his servants, to stay until he's ready to greet her, perhaps days or weeks in the future; a distraught and perplexed Elizabeth promptly leaves the castle, realizing that her endearingly foolish friend has gone off the deep end. Actually, there's a kind of charm to the obliqueness of the scene Ebert describes, and it allows him to deliver a humorous line for his conclusion, but undoubtedly the lengthier version of the sequence makes more sense.

Indeed, despite the madness of its subject, Ludwig is one of the more accessible Viscontis screened in the MFA series. It was shown following the at times inscrutable Death in Venice, which takes Thomas Mann's intense novella, obscures and transforms many of its meanings, and stretches scenes out for mysterious purposes (one is often left with the lingering suspicion that Visconti is simply in love with his sets - how else to explain the long pans across the room which abandon both our intellectual hero and the pubescent object of his intense affection?). Despite Ebert's claim that "I thought Visconti had just about used up the possibility of penetrating stares in his last movie, 'Death in Venice' which contained nearly 15 minutes of them...[b]ut, no, his characters are staring all the more penetratingly in 'Ludwig'", the film is actually quite talky and hardly consumed by wordless effects.

The first half of the movie may even be too talky, and at times - despite its grand locations and lavish sets - it seems oddly stagey, like a well-produced TV movie. In the second half, as Ludwig puts aside all concerns of state and any last traces of interpersonal relationships (at least with his equals), the visuals take over and the movie becomes more "cinematic." Here there is no question that Visconti is in love with his sets, but such self-indulgent adoration suits the subject (and indeed, the "sets" are often the actual locations they are depicting: fairy-tale castles which Ludwig himself built). In more ways than one: Ludwig is played by Helmut Berger, the director's lover - Visconti's passionate gaze is fully on display here, once the king discovers why he didn't want to marry Elizabeth's pretty sister when he had the chance.

Also on display are Visconti's love for opera (the king was infamously a patron, and a badly used one at that, of Wagner, played here by the game Trevor Howard) and for depicting the decline of the aristocracy (it would be hard to pick a more extreme example than Ludwig, who begins in a palace as lord of the land, and winds up in cramped confines as a mental patient overseen by stuffed-shirt bourgeoisie). The movie ends abruptly - as soon as the king is discovered dead, the frame freezes and the credits flash over the image of his corpse - but while this might be a crucial flaw in a more ambitious film, ultimately Ludwig seems more like a pet project than an attempted masterpiece. The movie allows Visconti to play with his favorite toys without recourse to an exacting discipline. As such, Ludwig is not great but it is highly enjoyable.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner.

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