Italy, France, Germany, 1973
Directed by Luchino Visconti
With Helmut Berger (Ludwig II, King of Bavaria), Romy Schneider (Elizabeth, Empress of Austria), Umberto Orsini (Count von Holstein), Helmut Griem (Dürckheim), Gert Fröbe (Father Hoffman), John Moulder-Brown (Prince Otto), Marc Porel (Richard Hornig), Sonia Petrovna (Sophie), Trevor Howard (Richard Wagner), Silvana Mangano (Cosima von Bülow), Folker Bohnet (Joseph Kainz), Heinz Moog (Professor von Gudden)
Until they conflate into the final tragedy, two kind of pictures alternate throughout the montage. The first barely change: a frozen shot composition highlighting the usually stern words of a single speaker staring at the camera, seemingly talking to a group of persons, and actually to the audience. The background is blue, a kind of moire fabric stretched over the wall as a wallpaper, the lighting is carefully organized to create a wonderful chiaroscuro effect on the speaker’s face, which is half in the dark. The man, it is always a man, as men are the only ones to wield power and to get close to their master, recalls key events, describes his reactions, hedges sometimes his claims or, to the contrary, and in fact often, loses his temper. These are high-ranking, like ministers, or low-ranking, like servants, people who have worked with Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who is suspected to be insane. These various testimonies are demanded by an official inquiry looking into the past and present to understand whatever happened with the king and whether it is needed and opportune to depose him.
The other kind of pictures actually examines what the king’s life was, reconstructing through carefully crafted episodes the story of this most famous and contentious historical figure, striving to understand the man and his fate. They are shot in the trademark style of director Luchino Visconti: an amazing, painstaking, maddening collection of exquisite, luxurious, awesome prods, sets, and clothes, a superlative display of production values that still rings true, a vivid reconstruction of an elite way of life thriving in a profusion of material beauty – what started with “Senso” in 1954 has reached now a definitive apex and stuns the audience by the elegance and also the graceful humanity of the scenes: since the same care is given to attitudes, behaviors, social interactions, as to the objects and environments, the audience cannot but feel they are watching a glorious past living again, elaborate design yielding a king of authenticity, paradoxically.
The events are bunched by two or three, in narrative blocks lasting various times, before the witnesses heap up more derogatory, accusatory comments. A first block, after Ludwig’s coronation in 1862, examines his passionate relationship with his cousin, Elizabeth, empress of Austria, and his obsession with composer Richard Wagner. The film intertwines both his talks with his cousin and the plot around getting the composer in Bavaria and keep him there, despite the flaws of the man and the hostility of the Cabinet. Clearly, these two persons matter a lot to the very young king (he was born in 1845), symbolizing what he longs for, deep sentiments bordering on incest and poetic aspirations. The scenes also introduce the wider family circle of the king and key assistants, priest Father Hoffman, senior statesman Count von Holstein, and aide de camp Dürckheim, men glad to help the king, but who at the end would have clashing views on him.
A second block, at long last, delves into the politics of the king’s reign. The main, and troublesome, event is his alliance with the Austrian Empire against the Prussian Kingdom, even as these two powers jockey for the leadership of the German world in Europe. The gamble of Ludwig does not pay off: the inevitable war between the powers ends in the mayhem and blood of the Sadowa battle in 1866 and the bitter defeat of Austria. The event does not only upset the politics: it has a devastating impact on Ludwig’s beloved brother, Prince Otto. The king, in another surprising move for the Cabinet and the family, decides to get married, choosing Princess Sophie, Elizabeth’s sister. But the engagement period proves to be an ordeal for the once hopeful and cheerful lady, and the king, out of another whim, gives up on the marriage, causing scandal.
Time goes by, and in another block, the king is not only older, but can be rightly viewed as more confused. He is no longer interested by women, except his deep-rooted fancy for his cousin, and on the contrary elects either full solitude or the company of men, but it should be noted, they are fellows from the lower rungs of the strict social hierarchy, starting with his servants, and the bond can be far more intimate and sensual as befits, especially with his valet Richard Hornig (unsurprisingly, one of the few ready to talk in a respectful and positive way about the king during the inquiry). Above all, he seems even more obsessed with the arts, the need for putting poetry and beauty in charge of his life, and of his kingdom. The film rightly suggests he signs up reluctantly to the treaty creating a new German Reich, the second one forged in a war against France in 1870 and brilliantly organized by Prussian government chief Otto von Bismarck, only because there is a lot of money attached to it. And this money is right away spent on building extraordinary Baroque castles, amazingly huge and sprawling stately constructions whose decoration is grandiose, to say the least. Though he is still in touch with Richard Wagner, Ludwig keeps getting besotted with other artists, and for instance invites for a few days an attractive and gifted actor, Joseph Kainz, who soon becomes appalled by the eccentric and brutal behaviors of the king.
Then the two series of images merge, as the inquiry is brought to an end by its members who asks the military chief to take office, dethroning a king deemed now unfit to lead. The soldier is cautious, but it seems few are willing to support Ludwig: an exception is Dürckheim, while von Holstein is the fiercest supporter of the dethronement – at this point of time, Ludwig has clearly come under the skin of too many, and has gone too far in his fantastic dreams of poetry and beauty. Bolstered by the opinion of a respected psychiatrist, Professor von Gudden, the Cabinet eventually attempts to get Ludwig arrested in his Neuschwanstein castle, but he puts up quite a resistance, before accepting his fate. Yet von Gudden is not going to look after his new patient for long: a few hours later, Ludwig drowns himself in a river – the year is 1886, and Ludwig is barely more than 40.
Night talks bookend this tragic narrative arc. The film begins with still Prince Ludwig is confessing to Father Hoffman, an anxious young man grappling with his new duties, an indoors scene largely shot in close-ups, conveying the moral and personal demands challenging Ludwig. The film ends with the fateful walk of the now older king and the psychiatrist, another intellectual authority he did not choose but compels him to talk and behave in specific ways, von Gudden barely able to imagine what is going to happen but listening to the musings of his patient, who seems calm but still grappling with the obsession he puts at the center of his life, outdoors scenes largely shot in medium shots emphasizing the dark, reflective atmosphere where the king would put an end to his fantasies.
Probably, he told Elizabeth the real truth, but she may not have taken that seriously: he does love the night, the best, more magical part of time, and does belong to it, the source of dreams, illusions, thoughts. The film insists on the point: the longest and intensest (and most fruitful and cheerful) conversation he has with Richard Wagner takes place as the sun sets; he welcomes Joseph Kainz one evening, in the underground of his castle where flows an artificial river in the dark, torches lighting vaguely the eerie place rules by swans; and his kisses only belong to the night, whether on the lips of Elizabeth, or on the lips of Richard Hornig.
By contrast, days reveal a pallid, tormented face, growing pain, increasing frustration: Ludwig may be more and more insane, he is first and foremost overwhelmed by unpalatable facts. And worst of all, daylight brings out illness and despair: a blunt white light in a depressingly white room shrouds the madness of Prince Otto, a scarcer one catches von Holstein as he forces a bed-ridden Ludwig to sign a letter accepting the new empire. The odd discussion Ludwig has with his aide de camp after Sadowa could be better understood through this light: what he yearns for is a solitude that cuts him off from the horrors of politics and life, what actually the demands put on him by his coronation turned out to be, and opens the doors to his true aspirations, even if he gets misguided.
Dürckheim at first does not get it; at the end, he may still be unable to comprehend everything but stands by the desire, and the dream, of his king – he then cuts a lonely figure too, and not only amid the inquiry. The people who loved Ludwig in fact have never understand him, and stay faithful to more rational logic, which are to them the logic of power. Von Holstein is ruthlessly and brutally maneuvering to get him deposed; his high-minded, incensed attitude is just the somber expression of a general contempt for the king that finds a hysterical equivalent in the visits by Elizabeth of the amazing castles of her cousin, which drives her to laugh and then to give up on getting close to him (and at this point, her laughter echoes the rage of Joseph Kainz – Ludwig’s obsession with beauty and poetry has grown into a monstrosity that stuns or riles but never seduces, and cannot be excused).
If the witnesses quick to censure the king speak in a world of blue, another primary color dominates the life of the king, an opposite color too: red is pervasive though most of the film, be it a wallpaper or just a bunch of roses. The cinematography makes this red vibrate, symbol of luxury, of power, and probably echo of the many passions and troubles consuming the titular lead character, and the contrast between the two strands of the narrative is telling, once again suggesting how singular the king managed to be in the regulated and ritual world of the court, wielding power to achieve his own fantasies, how he was a stunning, if troubled, personality struggling to assert his passions in a system he could not fully belong to. And as the solitude of Ludwig grows, and madness becomes more obvious, and the end gets closer, red is less present. What is left in the lighting and the settings is the basic white and dark, till dark, in the final shot, wraps all things.
There are some limits to this sumptuous portrayal of Ludwig as a hopeless aesthete, a doomed dreamer, a romantic who could not be, which is through its double structure a remarkable case of cross-examination of fact and a refined investigative work on history. The most obvious is that the film gets too long, a bit unwieldy towards the end, indulging on beautiful scenes that adds little to the plot (like the Christmas celebration at the new home of Richard Wagner after he married the wife of his best friend, Cosima von Bülow, a role that gets a rather excessive importance which is to be excused by the scintillating presence of actress Silvana Mangano, but the trouble is that her performance sounds distant and superficial). The most important deals with the other way to look at Ludwig’s tragedy, and the other reason behind his drift into a rejection of reality and over-the-top fantasies.
Ludwig, by the way played by Helmut Berger in a riveting performance, movingly attuned to his complex character and wonderfully grasping his fervid and fragile nature (moreover, as the narrative moves on, Berger acquires an eerie resemblance with the real king), is also tormented by sexual impulses that may be, or may not be, based on possible historical facts, but still look like formulaic and arbitrary explanations. Ludwig is supposedly haunted by Elizabeth’s beauty and then finds solace in the male body: however delicate and careful the mise en scène is when broaching the topics of incest and homosexuality, it still sounds like the easy way to deal with the problematic psychology of an anxious and effete man not quite ready for the job and life fate has first assigned to him (the close-ups of the first scenes are from this point of view far more suggestive and perceptive), a ready-made exploration of scandalous instincts that may be more self-indulging than illuminating (although the film does not provide the definitely awkward, simplistic worldview underpinning his 1969 period piece “La caduta degli dei – The Damned”). What is clear, alas, is that even love could not have been enough to save Ludwig.