Monday, July 13, 2015

Film Review: Ludwig

"Ludwig"  **** (out of ****)

Why do certain projects appeal to some filmmakers more than others? Is it because all filmmakers look for stories which secretly tell the story of their lives? I thought about this as I watched Luchino Visconti's sadly often condemned and forgotten treasure, "Ludwig" (1973).

Over the years I have stated that among all of the works the great Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti had made, my favorite was "Ludwig", his depiction of the life and death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria with Helmut Berger in the title role.

Looking at the movie again however I see why Visconti would have been drawn to the story of a man from nobility, who had a great love of the arts and was closest homosexual, who struggled to deny his sexual temptations, in the name of his Catholic faith.

Visconti himself was a man of nobility. He was a Count who had developed a love of the arts. He studied the cello and became friends with the opera singer Maria Callas, whom he also directed in several operas. Unlike Ludwig though Visconti was open about his homosexuality. One of his lovers was Helmut Berger. Still, homosexuality was not a condoned lifestyle and most people at the time did not reveal they were for fear of being shunned by society.

Most movie critics (sheep) and film historians usually cite "The Leopard" (1963) as Visconti's best film and point out the comparisons between Visconti and his lead character Don Fabrizio, played by Burt Lancaster, but "Ludwig" has just as many comparisons and was probably as personal a story for Visconti to tell as "The Leopard". The difference is time has not been as kind to "Ludwig" as it has been to other Visconti films. That is too bad. Many people are missing out on a very interesting picture.

"Ludwig" can be summed up as the story of a man who never reached the potential so many had expected of him because he was not comfortable in his own skin. Ludwig is shown to be a man with a vision no one else could see. In the early moments of the film Ludwig is presented as a naive, innocent man. He befriends Wagner (Trevor Howard) hoping to share his music with the world, only to discover Wagner is using Ludwig for his money. Ludwig is in love with only one woman, his cousin, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), who is not capable of returning his love.

Once the inevitable truth is discovered by Ludwig it crushes his spirit, especially knowing Elizabeth will never love him. So, he attempts to "conform" to society and take a bride, another cousin, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), whom he does not love though she loves him. Ludwig cannot deny his homosexual feelings and calls off the wedding. After which he leads the life of a recluse and abandons his duties in state affairs.

These actions however alarm the government. Has the King gone mad? Can they take away his power? Several psychiatrist diagnose King Ludwig as suffering from paranoia and as a result is not in his right mental capacity to serve as king. But Ludwig is aware of the government's intentions, so is he really paranoid or justified in his actions?

For me the best scenes in the movie involve Ludwig and Elizabeth. He is sharing his soul with her but she is playing games with his feelings. Secretly she plots against him. She knows he is gay and that may be why she will never be with him but it is she that tells Sophie to marry Ludwig. Was it just to get Ludwig away from her or did she truly feel the the two were a good match?

I equally enjoyed sequences with Wagner. Ludwig explains over and over again the important of art on a society. How through art the artist will live forever. Is this something Ludwig would like to achieve, immortality? Is that why he admires the arts so much? The great artists will never be forgotten.

At nearly four hours long there were a few slow spots. I'm not particularly fond of the last hour of the movie. You also never truly get a sense of of Ludwig's reign. What were his accomplishments? But that was not of interest to Visconti we suspect.

"Ludwig" is considered by some film historians to be part of Visconti's "Germany Trilogy" which included "The Damned" (1969) and "Death in Venice" (1971). Like "Death in Venice", "Ludwig" is a story of a man in search of beauty. Like "The Damned" the movie looks at the behavior of the wealthy, though not in the same decadent way. Still like all Visconti films "Ludwig" shares a lush, operatic quality to it as we watch the tragic fate of this doomed figure. The classical music score helps create the tone as well.

There is so much eye candy in "Ludwig". It is a truly beautiful movie to look at. The craft of Visconti is clearly on display. The costume design by Piero Tosi was nominated for an Academy Award, his third nomination for a Visconti film. The cinematography, the lavish sets, the production design. You suspect more attention was given to these elements of the movie than the screenplay.

I'm no longer sure if "Ludwig" is still my favorite Visconti film. What did I find so appealing about this movie at one time? I don't have an answer to that question. At least not now. But, "Ludwig" holds up after a second viewing. I now see this as a personal story for Visconti. He may have been one of the few filmmakers capable of telling this story. Who else could have told this story with his sensitivity? How many other filmmakers could have related to the personal demons Ludwig faced due to his sexuality?

"Ludwig" may not be the best place to start if you are new to Visconti, he has made what I feel are more accessible films but after watching a few of his films you will notice nearly all of his artist traits are displayed here.