I watch an awful lot of movies that, were they translated into the written word, would overflow with exclamation points and be rendered entirely in capital letters. "Subtlety" is not usually the order of the day in the Tenebrous Empire, where loud screaming, eyeball-assaulting surrealism, and explosions of things that ordinarily would not explode are standard menu items. Based on his performances in films like "Salon Kitty," "Beast with a Gun," and "Faceless," it's easy to see why I've crowned Helmut Berger as King of Pitching a Fit. It brings me no small measure of joy to watch Berger chew the scenery in the way only an extremely gifted actor can--I can imagine that many folks reading this derive similar delight from performances by George C. Scott and Michael Caine at their most unhinged.
It would seem that teaming an actor so capable of going so far over the top in his performances with the kind of filmmaker who would dream up a four-hour biopic based on the life of a nineteenth century Bavarian king that popular history remembers as a madman would be a recipe for cinematic insanity. Add to this the fact that Visconti and Berger were romantically involved at the time of this film's production, thus raising the potential for this movie to be a really really long, really really expensive ego trip of a production motivated more by affection than good sense. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from Luchino Visconti's 1972 epic "Ludwig," except that I'd be spending four hours watching Helmut Berger pretend to be a king while wearing fancy historical outfits and therefore an entirely sound investment of MY time.
"Ludwig" is simultaneously sweeping in scale and emotionally intimate; luxurious in its settings and understated in its performances. It's a story about art, privilege, sexuality, spiritual love, and profound loneliness. The film attempts to portray the reign of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (spanning the years between 1864 and 1886) in a naturalistic, obsessively precise manner. Best known to most people for having the words "THE MAD" appended to his name as a result of his extravagant patronage and general eccentricity, the Ludwig of this film is a man whose devotion to the arts and lack of interest in affairs of state isolate him from his peers. He's emotionally fragile and has a naive tendency to deify artists (his exuberant financing of composer Richard Wagner is explored at length), but he's not mad. Ludwig is portrayed as an idealist whose visions of beauty are eroded and ultimately destroyed by forces both profound (obligations to state and family) and banal (Wagner is shown to be a brilliant artist who is also a ruthless profiteer). His love for his cousin Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria, (portrayed by Romy Schneider in a return to this role) isn't motivated by physical desire but rather by his admiration for her independent spirit and empathy with his passions.
This is an incredibly lavish production--filmed on site at Ludwig II's castles (including Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland), the movie includes some of the most painstakingly detailed costumes and set trappings I've ever seen. The cinematography is oftentimes dark, punctuated by rays of sunlight, much like a painting by one of the Dutch Masters. It's an incredibly beautiful movie populated almost entirely by incredibly beautiful actors.
It would be easy for this kind of mise en scene overwhelm the actors, but that isn't the case here. Visconti's film proceeds with a deliberate, slow pace that allows the audience to absorb the grand trappings of each scene before concentrating on the performances.
And yes, this is one heck of a slow-moving film. Make no mistake about it--there are spaces of film where it feels like Ludwig's 22-year reign is being depicted in Real Time. I'll admit that I found myself checking out during the long scenes of characters discussing the intricacies of continental European politics of the Nineteenth Century.
But, just as I was starting to question the wisdom of undertaking this particular nugget of Italian art cinema, the beauty of Berger's performance as the psychologically complex king would come through and I'd be hooked all over again. Beneath some pretty significant makeup (including a pretty squicky-looking set of rotten teeth), Berger conveys an impressive range of emotion , sometimes over the space of only a handful of frames. His reaction to a handsome young actor's soliloquy shows an ecstatic sadness that's nothing short of heartbreaking:
I talked last week about Endurance Movie-Watching, and I have a feeling that for many viewers, sitting still for four hours to watch a nuanced tragedy of manners might be more than they could or would want to handle. Sad and beautiful and meticulous, "Ludwig" is the Period Piece taken to an extreme. It's downright academic in its dedication to creating a fully immersive royal world, and the film suffers as entertainment because of this almost clinical level of detail. At the same time, I can't imagine watching one of the theatrical cuts of this movie--it would lose its resonance and elegance entirely.
For those of you less enthused about watching interminable arthouse fare, check out the Flickr gallery of stills from Visconti's "Ludwig" here.