Luchino Visconti the director of such films as Death in Venice, Ludwig, La Terra Trema, The Leopard, The Damned, and Rocco and His Brothers, has put on screen some of the most memorable images of Italian cinema of all times. His films are notorious for their opulence and melodramatic flair. Visconti was also a nobleman and a grand patron of traditional European culture: opera, art, music, crafts and literature. An open homosexual, an avowed Communist, and a wealthy Aristocrat, his films echoed his life in ways that were rarely complimentary, but always stunning. The later works of Luchino Visconti concentrated on the themes about dying social orders. When the order is that of a class, culture or sex, as in The Leopard (1963), The Damned (1969) and The Innocent (1976), it is clear that a historical moment is a catalyst for unwanted change.
The disintegration of aristocratic individuals is a continuing theme of Visconti's work and Ludwig is no exception. This story is a perfect vehicle for Visconti’s sensitivities and filmmaking style. The 19th-century gay "mad king" who built enormous fantasy castles and nearly bankrupted his country becomes a kind of parable of Visconti himself, both being art loving men living at odds with the rest of the world. The last ruling king of Bavaria (1845-1886) is noted for many things besides his eccentricities: he almost bankrupt Bavaria, in a way sold it to Germany ending the rule of the Bavarian monarchy; he also built amazing castles all over his country and was a big sponsor of the arts, associating himself with the great composers of the time. Recognizing his own lack of talent Ludwig becomes patron to the music of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt in the hopes of improving himself. Unfortunately these relationships and involvement with many other artists lead only to disappointment as in the case in which Ludwig becomes manipulated by Liszt's daughter and Richard Wagner for his money.
Visconti's Ludwig is sexually uninterested in women but platonically falls in love with his cousin Elizabeth because she is uninterested in him as a man, making her challengingly unattainable. Elizabeth is smart, playful, passionate, worldly, elegant, and seems to intuitively understand how to make the most of her position in the world. She possesses all the qualities that Ludwig lacks, making her more desirable to him and she is perfectly at ease with her position, unlike Ludwig. To satisfy his family's need for an heir Ludwig becomes engaged to Sophie (Sonia Petrowa) but never marries. Instead he is seen mostly wandering around his various castles as an eccentric loner indulging in drink and in a series of destructive affairs with handsome male servants and wannabe artists. At one point in the film there is even an orgy sequence reminiscent of Visconti’s previous film , The Damned. Ludwig’s excesses eventually led to his being declared mentally incompetent and ultimately held prisoner in his own castle, until his death. But what makes Ludwig’s story so unusual is that he remained an extremely popular king even though he was a careless leader of his country.
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.