Includes 15-minute intermission
Luchino Visconti’s film about Bavaria’s King Ludwig II (Helmut Berger) is an opulent, complex study of romantic ambition in the era of 19th-century decadence.
Ludwig is a loner tormented by unrequited love for his cousin Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider); by an obsession with the music of Richard Wagner; and by excessive state-funded expenditures. This lavishly composed portrait of one of history’s most complicated figures is as much an operatic descent into madness as a requiem to a monarch at the dawn of the modern republican world.
“Visconti made a 264-minute film that was trimmed for distribution. In 1980 (four years after Visconti’s death), the original negative was purchased at an auction, then restored under the supervision of the original script supervisor. This version had its premiere later the same year at the Venice Film Festival. Whether the resulting mega-film is precisely what Visconti had in mind, I have no idea. But it is a memorable achievement.” —Wall Street Journal
“Visconti’s project was, in a sense, an act of reclamation. This king was seen for decades as a pathetic disgrace, a failed statesman whose failing sanity cost his nation dearly. He had effectively ceded power over Bavaria, wanting nothing to do with the unified Germany rising around him, a new power driven by Prussian expansion and diplomatic realpolitik—the forces that would culminate in Nazism. In Visconti’s eyes, Ludwig is the end point of German romanticism, a symbol of a path not taken. (His approach differs significantly from the German director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who also made a film about the king in 1972; for Syberberg, Ludwig and German romanticism were early expressions of the same impulse that would eventually bring Hitler to power.)
“There is one scene in Ludwig that I’ve never been able to shake, and it feels different every time I see this beautiful, hypnotic movie. It comes late in the film, as Elisabeth comes to visit Ludwig in one of his castles. The paranoid king refuses to see her. She walks around the grounds as we are treated to 10 minutes of Romy Schneider silently touring this ornate, massive palace at Herrenchiemsee, shot on location. At the sight of a Versailles-like hall of mirrors, she begins to laugh uncontrollably, her cackles echoing in the vast emptiness of the room. Is this mockery or defiance? Is she guffawing at Ludwig’s insanity? Or is she gleefully admiring the fact that, as the old world collapses around him, this mad king has dared to dream not of war and empire and power, but of otherworldly beauty? The question hangs tantalizingly in the air.” —Village Voice