The first question that arises when watching Luchino Visconti’s ‘Ludwig’ (1973) is how the hell did a committed Communist go from shooting impoverished anchovy fishermen to making a film filled with so much Royalty porn that it would make Barbara Cartland puke her guts up over one of her poodles? Yet in many ways it’s entirely logical as Visconti was, after all, born into the world of the aristocracy (he was a duke and his family once ruled over Milan) so if anyone knew what he was doing here with the aristos it was Luchy. Of course, that raises the second question — just what on earth is Visconti doing here? Let’s find out!
‘Ludwig’ tells the story King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a monarch who went mad from the weight of his position, the repression of his sexuality and from listening to too much Wagner. The film opens with his death before flashing back to his coronation while various people who knew him speculate as to the competing rumours for his descent into mania. These speculations mean we always have to be careful how we interpret what we’re watching as, very often, we could simply be getting someone’s point of view. Was, for example, Wagner a genius and one of the few who could understand and soothe the troubled King’s soul, or was he a total scam artist out to fleece the monarch for every penny he could get?
Sound interesting, right? Well, it would be if ‘Ludwig’ wasn’t one of the, if not possibly THE most, tedious movies ever made. Good grief, it’s a brain-breakingly dull FOUR HOURS that feels like a guided tour of a Germanic palace whilst simultaneously struggling to resist going under general anaesthetic.
‘Ludwig’ is a profoundly boring (and boring is the only profound aspect of ‘Ludwig’) experience but it also means that the little things, when they occur, can suddenly become incredibly exciting, which could account for why I occasionally felt the urge to give the film a standing ovation just because someone had stood up and got out of a chair.
Admittedly, to be fair, Visconti directs people getting into and out of chairs better than anyone else I’ve seen so if that’s your bag you’ll find ‘Ludwig’ a dizzying thrill-ride. But these tantalising morsels Visconti feeds us are few and far between which meant that I often felt like a dog being given the occasional treat during a long car journey for not ripping up the seats. And trust me, this film frequently made me want to destroy my sofa entirely.
Loads of interesting stuff, potentially, happens too! There’s wars, affairs, operas and gay orgies but they all happen off-screen meaning we see none of it. What we DO see a lot of is Ludwig moping about in his castles, moping about in the forest and moping about in a grotto with some swans. Ludwig wants none of the distractions of this earthly world and desires to only exist in pure beauty; everything else can be discarded or forgotten. For all the implied scale here this is an, intentionally, claustrophobic film.
The only relationship Ludwig has any real time for is with Trevor Howard’s Wagner and Wagner here is very, very silly indeed, especially when he wakes everybody up at Christmas with a string section like he’s Clark fucking Griswold. Yet the scene where Wagner’s initiates his scam is absolutely fantastic and so well handled in terms of how the composer’s motives are revealed through the careful interplay between Wagner, Ludwig and Cosima that it is utterly hypnotic. Technically it’s a marvel, too, with an intense psychological shift happening just by someone bringing in some lamps at dusk. It’s a mundane action but it radically alters the entire lighting, colouring and interpersonal dynamics of the set. It’s really quite masterful.
Other striking moments include Romy Schneider’s Empress Elizabeth walking through an Autumnal woodland which might be the most beautiful representation of that season I’ve seen put to film in my life. Actually, ANY shot involving Schneider is stunning in terms of composition, costume design and cinematography and must’ve made people like Kubrick slack-jawed with envy at the time. Likewise when we see Ludwig playing with his Moon mobile or when we see an almost pop-art set of coloured lights descend from the heavens — there’s no denying that Visconti’s sense of colour, light and space is remarkable. There’s some seriously impressive shit going down here.
However, for all the visual subtlety and brilliance going on the emotional beats are so heavy-handed, so leaden and maladroit that ‘Ludwig’ frequently veers fully into B-movie territory (Visconti might have a perfectionist’s eye for detail but he has Ed Wood’s ear for dialogue). Combine that with almost zero dramatic tension and ‘Ludwig’ doesn’t so much climax as simply deflates, as though the entire film had a slow puncture and you only notice once the journey is almost over and you’re gradually trundling home.
It is, however, a genuinely fascinating experience watching ‘Ludwig’ straight after ‘Death in Venice’ (1971) as ‘Ludwig’ acts almost as a sort of meta-commentary and/or criticism on Visconti’s previous film. Many of the issues and problems I had with ‘Death in Venice’ are explicitly stated by several characters in ‘Ludwig’ which, despite being aimed at the young monarch, could also be directly applied to Visconti’s work itself. Accusations such as piggy-backing on the music of great composers to bolster your own work, a pathological yearning for transcendent beauty, an exclusion of intimacy, a tendency towards hubris, etc. Homosexuality is certainly handled far better here. Is this an act of self-awareness on Visconti’s part?
Maybe not because although he criticises himself and holds up his cinematic flaws and problems up to the light he then immediately goes on to commit them all over again and on an even bigger, longer, more boring scale! He’s, somehow, managed to make both the “ideal” Visconti movie and the perfect parody of it at the same time!
It would be funny, but four hours is too long to tell a joke.