Judge William Lee built his dream castle out of sofa cushions and blankets.
"The king is an angel, a young god descended from Olympus, but he is
surrounded by stupid, suspicious, miserable idiots."
"You must see it [Wagner's opera Tristan]. You'll understand
everything I've been trying to tell you. And you'll also understand me."
Luchino Visconti's masterful portrait of Ludwig II, the "mad" king of Bavaria, is restored to its original four-hour running time on this two-disc DVD set from Koch Lorber. Filming in many of the real locations associated with Ludwig's reign, history buffs will enjoy the careful detailing contained in this chronicle of the misunderstood monarch. Viewers unfamiliar with 19th century European history might grow restless with the claustrophobic staging and the protagonist's aloofness.
Facts of the Case
Crowned at the age of 18, Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886. He disliked public functions and showed little interest in affairs of state. Preferring to establish himself as a patron of the arts, Ludwig's generous support of Richard Wagner perhaps saved the composer's career. The king also commissioned the construction of several extravagant fantasy castles with his personal fortune. Beloved among common Bavarians, Ludwig was eventually deposed by his cabinet ministers.
Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice) was one of the leaders of the neo-realism movement of Italian cinema. While the post-WWII filmmaking movement had a populist spirit (featuring non-professional cast members, real locations, stories about ordinary people), the director's roots lay with the upper crust of society. Born into one of Italy's wealthiest families, Visconti's sympathy for and intimate understanding of the aristocracy is evident in movies such as The Leopard. That affinity toward the ruling class may have informed his telling of Ludwig II's story, which often feels like it is told from an insider's perspective.
Prior to seeing Ludwig, my knowledge of Bavarian history started and ended with the pastry. After 40 minutes, I felt a little lost and paused the movie for some quick Internet research. A little bit of reading up on Bavaria's "fairy tale" king enhanced my viewing experience immensely, because the movie provides nothing to introduce viewers to the characters or the political situation of the story. Perhaps moviegoers still had Ludwig II on the mind in the 1970s but I suggest today's viewers do a small bit of homework first.
Covering the time from his inauguration to his death, Ludwig is told in flashback as his ministers and other witnesses give accounts of the king's behavior to an off-screen inquisitor who will decide if the king is of sound enough mental capacity to rule. As different events are introduced, the narrative of Ludwig's reign takes on an episodic structure. Some of the key moments deal with Ludwig's unrequited love for his cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and his subsequent engagement to her younger sister Sophie; his patronage of Wagner who is portrayed by Trevor Howard (Morituri) as a chronic debtor; his obsession with Hungarian theater actor Josef Kainz; and his inept handling of the war with Prussia.
Helmut Berger (The Damned) gives a fascinating but cold performance in the title role. His memorable facial expressions (especially those intense eyes) convincingly take the character from naïve youth to paranoid mad man. Early on, Ludwig sees himself as the romantic hero on a tragic trajectory. Though he professes his love for Elisabeth, he seems just as content that she remain unattainable—all the better for the opera taking place in his head. An awkward politician, he is stiff and uncomfortable when dealing with his ministers, and even his friends. If he disagrees with their advice he won't speak up—he'll just issue his own instructions later once they've left him alone. His behavior is emboldened as he becomes more isolated from the real world: his gifts more lavish, his requests grander, his homosexuality indulged. Though it is difficult to sympathize with the character, Berger makes Ludwig immensely interesting. I was riveted to the scenes where he tells his brother, Otto, who has been injured in the 1866 war against Prussia that the conflict doesn't even exist for him. His dismissal of his armies' suffering in the Seven Weeks' War because it isn't "the truth" he seeks is such a monstrously insensitive statement that I wanted to understand Ludwig at the same time that I despised him.
Another standout performance comes from Romy Schneider (Boccaccio '70) who easily radiates regal sophistication as Empress Elisabeth. She is famous for playing the character in the Sissi films of the 1950s. Schneider vowed never to take on the role again but she made an exception for Visconti. Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) is among the supporting players as Father Hoffmann, Ludwig's spiritual advisor.
All of the dialogue was dubbed using different actors speaking the lines for their on-screen counterparts. The result on this mono soundtrack is strong and clear dialogue mixed over weak incidental sound effects and music. When there isn't any talking, the soundtrack is rather lifeless. On the other hand, the re-mastered video is quite satisfying. The colors are strong with a bias favoring reds that make the skin tones a bit too rosy in a few scenes but is otherwise fine. There picture detail doesn't have the crispness that you'd expect in newer movies but you can still appreciate the attention given to costumes and backgrounds. Soft-focus appears to be deliberately used at times. Nighttime scenes exhibit a bit of grain and the deep blacks hide all image details outside of the elements receiving direct illumination. The picture doesn't exhibit any distracting digital artifacts or physical blemishes. There were only two instances when technical glitches interrupted the movie: an ill-timed layer switch mid-shot on disc one, and one second of black (video and audio dropout) after a scene change on disc two.
Koch Lorber has included three archival documentaries on this two-disc set. All are presented full frame with passable video quality. The best of the bonus features is a 55-minute documentary called "Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Romance." Originally produced in 1999, the documentary traces the director's life and career. Colleagues share their memories of the man and there is footage of his funeral attended by many celebrities. Clips from some of his films are incorporated along with analysis but Ludwig only gets a passing mention. "Silvana Mangano: The Scent of Primroses" (31:00) is a loving remembrance of the actress who plays Wagner's scheming lover, Cosima von Bülow. In the "Piero Tosi Interview" (54:00), the multiple Academy Award-nominated costume designer answers nearly an hour's worth of questions. The camera is aimed at Tosi the entire time, which makes the featurette visually tedious but after he warms to the off-screen interview, Tosi recalls some candid details of his experience working with Visconti.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A naïvely romantic and arrogant king, Ludwig was uncomfortable in his public role and preferred to isolate himself from the world. Accordingly, most of Visconti's film takes place inside Ludwig's palaces and away from the actual action. The resulting claustrophobia is thematically appropriate but it makes for restless viewing. Without prior knowledge of this period in history, it's difficult to get a full picture of what is happening in Ludwig's world when news arrives in ministers' brief reports. We see none of the populace that holds Ludwig so dear, hear none of the decisions that breed hostility in the cabinet and witness none of the battles that shape the fate of the country.
The filmmakers had access to the famous, fairy tale castles that Ludwig ordered constructed but the photography doesn't give them their deserved grandness. These are among Germany's most popular tourist sites and I was waiting to see a dramatic establishing shot that never came. The exteriors looked like real castles, but I didn't get a sense of what made each location unique. The interiors are beautiful but most of the time I could have assumed they were studio sets. When Elisabeth visits each of the castles (after three hours into the film) it is a visual highlight. The Venus grotto at Linderhof Castle is particularly spectacular. I wish there had been more concrete details like this to help us imagine what was going on in Ludwig's head.
Visconti does not provide an introduction to the characters, nor the broad context for the events that marked his reign. Therefore, a minimal amount of research is required before visiting this period of European history. Running nearly four hours, Ludwig will test the patience of some viewers but Berger's unusual portrayal of a pitiable figure almost justifies the time spent.
The defendants are released for time served. Patient viewers are
congratulated for their time as well.
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Studio: Koch Lorber
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