Luchino Visconti finished Death in Venice in 1970 and had actually planned a film adaptation of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdus – a long-planned project he would never realise in the end. LUDWIG, based on the live and death of the Bavarian King Ludwig, turned out to be also a mammoth undertaking. The shooting took nearly a year, from July 1971 to June of 1972, and Visconti would suffer a major stroke a month into filming which saw him hospitalised in the same Zurich hospital where Thomas Mann died, on whose novella of the same name Visconti’s Death in Venice was based.
LUDWIG is like a slow waltz of self-destruction: crowned at 18, Ludwig II of Bavaria (Helmut Berger) is narcissistic and a repressed homosexual. His great love is Elizabeth of Austria (Schneider), the married Empress, who is unattainable. The two meet in Bad Ischl and Possenhofen, where they use the night to escape from court rituals. For Elizabeth Ludwig is just another escape, but he is attracted to her because she is his mirror image – she is the love of his life. Ludwig is not interested in fulfilling his duties as regent, he sees himself as a patron of arts, particularly music. When war breaks out, Ludwig, having fought against it, leaves his generals to themselves. But his brother Otto (Moulder-Brown), who is fighting at the front, is traumatised and Ludwig is only too happy, to see the end of the military conflict, even though Bavaria is on the loosing side. Otto is another person Ludwig cares for: Ludwig – again – sees himself in the hyper-sensitive young man. When Elizabeth asks him to marry their cousin princess Sophie (Petrovna), he only agrees, because the court chaplain Hoffmann (Froebe) has come to suspect him of homosexual activities. The courtiers even pay an ‘actress’ to sleep with Ludwig, but he rejects her and throws her, laughing hysterically, into a swimming pool.
The film’s main narrative centres around the king’s relationship with Richard Wagner (Howard), who is fleeing from his creditors from all over Europe. Wagner lives with Cosima von Bülow (Mangano), Franz Liszt’s daughter, who is still married to the conductor Hans von Bülow, who does not want to lose his well paid job as Wagner’s ‘house’ conductor, and pretends even to Ludwig, that he knows nothing about the relationship between his wife and the composer. Ludwig is not only paying Wagner’s enormous debts, but also builds him a music-theatre in Bayreuth. Together with the building work for the outrageous castles in Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, Ludwig’s extravagant lifestyle – he also gave fortunes to a actors and other artists – ruined the kingdom. The ministers, who had been quiet happy to rule without much supervision, suddenly decided to commit the King to a psychiatric institution. Just Major Duerkheim (Griem) stays loyal to the king, who has by now given in to his homosexuality and sleeps with his servants and workers, whom he picks up in local hostelries. The long goodbye to life is near, when Ludwig refuses to see Elizabeth, who is touring his castles, laughing uncontrollably at the kitsch design.
Visconti was well known for his work as an opera director at the Scala and other major opera houses. LUDWIG, very much like Senso before, is structured like a tragic 19th century opera where the hero slides slowly into madness and death. DoP Armando Nannuzzi, who worked with Visconti for The Damned, uses sumptuous colours and panoramic shots to illuminate a world of decay, in which Ludwig is sinking. By the end of his life, LUDWIG was a lounge lizard who liked to live at night, Nannuzzi’s colour scheme gets darker and darker: red, at the beginning so glittering, becomes a near black. Berger is brilliant and a great ensemble helps Visconti to realize this ‘Totentanz’. AS
NOW AVAILABLE on ARROW FILMS | LUDWIG | Dual Format DVD + Blu-ray on 27 March 2017