What happens when absolute power is placed in the hands of a kind totally unfit to rule? When the king neglects his country’s problems to finance his artistic protégés and build sumptuous castles? When the king’s mental faculties are clearly degenerating? When the country’s independence withers and its public debt increases? What’s a country to do with such a king? These are some of the questions Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig poses. The final instalment of Visconti’s Germany history trilogy, which includes The Damned and Death In Venice, Ludwig is about King Ludwig II of Bavaria, also known as the Swan King, the Moon King, the Fairy-Tale King, and, what is arguably the fittest nickname, the Mad King of Bavaria.
The theme of madness runs through most of the movie, in a languid pace, demonstrating the slow mental breakdown of Ludwig (Helmut Berger). A young, idealistic aristocrat, he assumes power with the intentions of practicing only good and serving his country God. But the young King, obsessed with arts, and especially Richard Wagner’s music, has a quaint vision of his duties. For him spiritual regeneration is more important than material matters, so his first decision is to bring Wagner (Trevor Howard), on the run from creditors, to Munich, to stage his magnificent and expensive Tristan and Isolde.
From the beginning Ludwig constantly clashes against his ministers, who dislike the king’s aloofness and squandering of the public treasury. In their defence, Wagner is portrayed as a grovelling, greedy sycophant who constantly exploits the king’s idealism for personal gain. Trevor Howard does a great job playing the legendary composer.
Ludwig’s alienation from his people is clearly portrayed during when Bavaria takes the side of Austria against Prussia, during the Seven Week’s War. While his people, his younger brother included, fight and suffer humiliating defeats, Ludwig retreats to a palace, refusing to accept that a war is raging on. Years later, when Wilhelm I of Prussia unifies the German kingdoms into the German Empire, Ludwig, by then completely oblivious to what went in around him, Ludwig is forced to sign away the independence of his kingdom in the new empire.
Ludwig can be pretty hard to follow without a reasonable grasp of East European history, and Visconti tries to cram so much into the movie that most events are barely developed, but the second half of the movie, dealing with the construction of Ludwig’s famous castles, with underground lakes for swans, is more interesting and dramatic. With his mental collapse obvious, Ludwig now inhabits a fairy-tale world, separated from reality, any chances of marrying and bearing an heir pretty much over, indulging in orgies and hiring actors to represent for him his favourite monologues. It’s at this time that the ministers plot to replace the king with someone else.
Helmut Berger, who was outstanding as an extravagant hedonist in Visconti’s The Damned, plays essentially the same role but with less charisma. Berger is quite good but he can’t carry on his own a movie with very little story. Visconti could have chosen to concentrate on a specific period of Ludwig’s short reign, to condense the dramatic power of his life. Instead the viewer is asked to stand repeated scenes of Ludwig discoursing about art, of ministers worrying about public debt, and of beautiful people sitting in beautiful couches surrounded by beautiful decoration. This is the movie where Visconti’s sense of design and art direction takes over the importance of drama. This takeover slowly asserts itself through the trilogy, with Death In Venice already barely keeping the balance between the story and Visconti’s love for Venice’s derelict buildings and dirty streets.
In spite of Visconti’s preference of costumes and buildings over people, Helmut Berger does a great job as Ludwig. His transformation is impressive. He starts as a clean-shaved, angelic youth and progressively assumes a more demonic look, growing his hair and beard, letting his teeth rotten until his mouth looks like a piece of coal, growing paler and developing sunken eyes. In fact most of his acting is done with his eyes, always showing a lot of emotions and mental activity going on, as befits a man diagnosed with paranoia. Berger’s performance is one of the main reasons to watch this movie.
This is perhaps Visconti’s ultimate achievement in design and art direction and few movies can boast of being prettier than Ludwig. Although I was less than pleased with the glacial pace of this movie – not that I have anything against glacial paces, just unjustified ones – it deserves a watch, when one has four hours to spend without regrets.
Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico
Cast: Helmut Berger, Helmut Griem, Trevor Howard, Romy Schneider, Silvana Mangano
Runtime: 235 min
Country:Italy, France, West Germany