Pablo Vargas, The Spinning Image (link)
Ludwig is quite a monumental work - directed with grand operatic scale by Visconti, who obviously shares Ludwig’s love of "art" and disdain for the historical facts of Bavaria’s conflicts with Prussia and Austria. As it is, the film is mostly consumed with the art, music and the romantic notions of Ludwig as opposed to his political side. Visconti presents Ludwig as a complicated character overwhelmed by contradictions. He is charming and alienating, controlling and insanely passionate for music and art, and other times emotionally weak and vulnerable as when dealing with his sick brother. His inability to become an artist himself and his inability to reconcile his personal needs with his place in the world ultimately drives him into deep despair while ignoring his responsibility as a king to his country in crisis.
Visconti has suggested when discussing his filmic style that a prowling eye (in this case Visconti’s camera) can discover almost everything it needs to know just by looking. In Ludwig there are wonderful sequences where the camera glides slowly, over the landscapes, the castles, the ceremonials of the royalty, looking at all the quirks of behavior and social etiquette with such attention to detail like a patient sociologist taking notes. It is here where the richness of Visconti’s work becomes most apparent. Visconti achieves a stately narrative pace suggesting the slow deterioration of this society. We look at all the possibilities that Ludwig had when he assumed throne and then look at the damage that precedes and wonder what could have happened. Visconti’s images are full of information. The dominant images are of brooding sadness and of slow and inevitable decay. Even thou we know exactly how Ludwig arrived at these conditions, it is still hard to believe what we are seeing, but we continue to stare at the disaster with fascination.
All the actors in Ludwig are superb. Visconti's protégé Helmut Berger is terrific, bringing the right balance of warmth, cold distance and calculated madness seamlessly while not afraid to age grotesquely. In Visconti’s previous film The Dammed we wondered how on earth did Helmut Berger, first seen as a plausible and flamboyant drag queen version of Marlene Dietrich ceased to be the emblem of deviance and became a stalwart SS officer. In Ludwig, Visconti reverses this transformation, turning Berger from a young handsome king with a rich world full of possibilities to a wreck of a scared man that has bankrupted an entire nation. Berger plays Ludwig as a tormented and sad monarch who found himself more enchanted with the music of Wagner than with the role that he played in history. Even with his limited amount of screen time Trevor Howard is magnetic as Richard Wagner. Romy Schneider (Bocaccio 70) livens things up as a Elizabeth, a royal relative bringing a certain uniqueness and elegance to every scene.
The soundtrack is filled with the music of Wagner and Schumann and complements each and every scene by adding the right emotional impact. The cinematography by Armando Nannuzzi is masterful and dazzling. The costume designs by Piero Tosi and the production designs by Mario Chiari and Mario Scisci are spectacular.
Not everything in this film is perfect. The film is rich with imagery, beauty and music but slowly paced for its running time and could benefit of some tightening. There is an obsessive focus on Tannhauser and Tristan und Isolde operas, Wagner's music and art, that although beautiful for the eyes and ears tends to slow down the dramatic progression of the narrative. After it’s opening, the film was reedited and hacked by its distributors without Visconti’s approval and dismissed by the critics and the box office. The most serious omission is the entirely deleted epilogue, which reveals that Ludwig's corpse had multiple bullet wounds when it was retrieved from Lake Sternberg. There are at least four different versions of the film; the uncut four-hour version is the most coherent, even though many might find it rather long.
Visconti’s Ludwig is a challenging film not intended for impatient people with short attention spans. Even with all of its flaws, the film offers a fascinating study of an unusual historical figure who’s main strength was in his ability to avoid the world in grand fashion. Visconti’s obsessive attention to detail and melodramatic operatic flair works well for the story of Ludwig. This may not be Visconti’s best film but regardless, it is a serious and complex work that deserves to be appreciated, slow at times but fascinating nonetheless.