Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Luchino Visconti | Ludwig

body and soul

by Douglas Messerli

Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli, and Suso Cecchi d'Amico (screenplay), Luchino Visconti (director) Ludwig / 1973

Before I even begin writing about Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig of 1973 it is necessary to report which version of Visconti’s great film I saw, since there are now four editions of the work. The original “director’s cut” was over four hours long, far too long argued the film’s distributors—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (USA) and MGM-EMI (UK)—who cut it back to three hours when it originally appeared in German theaters. Visconti was unable to fight the changes since he had had a stroke during the filming and was too ill to further hold up the film’s release.

     The depiction of Ludwig’s homosexuality, moreover, caused a huge stir in Bavaria where Ludwig was still beloved by many conservatives, among them Bavarian Prime Minister Franz Josef Strauss, who attended the film there upon its premiere. Fearing further controversy, the distributors immediately cut another 55 minutes from the already butchered work of cinema, reducing the film to two hours, and excising any remaining hint of homosexuality along with removing most of the philosophical dialogues which help to explain Ludwig’s difficulties in attempting to serve the nation, the church, and himself simultaneously. Presumably, the people at MGM felt that these extensive cuts would help make the film more popular for mainstream audiences; it did not, only further estranging its audiences because of its disjointed plot and seemingly unrelated incidents. It was this two-hour version which most of the world saw when attending Ludwig in theaters in the US and the rest of Europe.

     In short, most viewers, attending the March 1973 US showing, as film critic Wolfram Schütte put it, “haven’t even seen the film.”  Is it any wonder that Vincent Canby wrote of it in The New York Times Review:

Ludwig, which opened yesterday at the 59th Street Twin 2 Theater, is opera buffa that doesn't know it. Visconti and his writers give us the story of Ludwig's reign (or, at least, the outline of it) in a manner that is meant to be grand but actually is just a frantic inventory of what historians usually call his excesses—his rather superficial appreciation for art and architecture, his love of sweets (which resulted in his teeth falling out) and especially his love affairs with a series of grooms, actors and other pretty fellows. Visconti has been such an intelligent film maker in the past that it's difficult to believe that Ludwig could be quite as bereft of ideas as it is. Is it about kingship? About the genesis of the Second Reich under the domination of the Prussian dynasty? About family? I don't think so. 

     Actually, had he seen the entire film, he might have realized that the movie is very much about just those subjects he brings up, but is also about so very much more. I’m surprised that he even figured it out that Ludwig (the always beautiful Helmut Burger, Visconti’s real-life lover of many years) had an eye for the boys, although apparently the cut vision did retain the later film scene in which we observe the leftovers of an all-male orgy. The posters and film promos, even today, feature the central figure about to kiss his cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), as if the film’s exploration of his personal life was focused upon a heterosexual liaison between the two. If he loved her it was only because she reminded him so very much of himself, a strong- willed royal who hated having to play out the responsibilities of being one, which cannot help but remind us today’s Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor, better known as Prince Harry Duke of Sussex, the so-called “bad boy” grandson of Elizabeth II. Ludwig, at least if Visconti is to be believed, was a virgin when it came to women, and accordingly had no Meaghan Markle to help him escape. 

     Finally, I’m not at all surprised that a film in which most of the philosophical ideas have been erased, does in fact appear to be a work “without ideas.” The original, however, is very much a film of ideas, of which the issue of Ludwig’s sexuality is only a small part; and even then, Visconti is not at all interested in portraying gay sex as much as it is showing us why Ludwig’s sexuality helped to torture him and bring others to describe his as a mad man.

     The review of another US critic, Roger Ebert, makes even clearer the damage done to this work due to its numerous lost passages: 

I guess the movie might have made more sense in its uncut version, but I can’t be sure. There are all sorts of moments that are either (a) enigmatic, or (b) simply unresolved loose ends. At one point, a breathless courier races into the room and informs Ludwig that Bavaria has been defeated and has surrendered. Fine, but until this moment the movie has made no mention of a war. Nor is it ever mentioned again, and Ludwig stays in office.

      At another moment, a character of little importance suddenly becomes a narrator and tells us what we can see perfectly well: That Ludwig has invited a young actor to spend some time with him in the country. This is the only narration in the film; I suppose it’s inevitable that it would be used to explain one of the few moments in the film not needing explanation. Then again, at the end, there’s a printed epilog that informs us, so help me God, that “In death as in life, Ludwig remained an enigma.”

     Those of us who have now seen the entire four hours and seven minutes of this phenomenal artwork, were not confused by any of these incidents, recognizing them in a larger context of the film. Nor were we told as an afterthought that Ludwig was an enigma, since the character himself described that it as his intentional pose. (Near the end of the film Ludwig tells von Gudden, “I am an enigma. I want to be an enigma forever for those outside my world and for myself.”)

     Fortunately when I determined to watch this film, I couldn’t find a DVD version in print; and when I finally did see one for sale, I had already begun to watch on Mubi the restored version that the film’s editor Ruggero Mastroianni and screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico had created for the 1980 Venice Film Festival four years after Visconti’s death. Apparently, the DVD version I had tracked down was the butchered one. Chance had saved me from mistakenly judging the work for something it had never been. Thank heaven for serious film sites such as Mubi, Criterion, Kino Lorber, and Filmatique for their careful curating and preservation.

     Visconti’s film, in reality, is a long epic that with a careful and deliberative pace establishes several things about the “Swan King,” the truly “bad boy” of the late 19th century who died of apparent suicide by drowning.

      Perhaps most important is that Ludwig was raised and trained to be precisely the aloof connoisseur of arts for which he was later damned for being. Although Visconti does not probe into his character’s childhood, the Ludwig he presents to us obviously was trained dutifully by tutors and Roman Catholic priests to be a pious aesthete, a man highly attune to the arts; and one of the earliest scenes in the film shows him coming of age and confessing to his personal priest, Father Hoffman (Gert Fröbe) that he has finally realized—faced at 19 with the death of his father and his own ascendency to the role of King of Bavaria—how he might best contribute to the well-being of his kingdom. Since he has hardly ever encountered people outside of the wealthy circles in which he was isolated from the rest of the world, Ludwig has utterly no ambitions of seeing to the welfare of his citizens or, although architecture is one of his deep passions, of remodeling the public structures of Münich or other Bavarian cities (yet he did, in fact, lay the cornerstone of Münich’s Cort Theater, now the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz). Ludwig, raised entirely a creature apart from others (history reports that he hardly ever even met with his father), given his noblesse oblige training intends to introduce Bavarian society to great European theater and, most importantly, to opera, in particular the works of Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard).

     But what happens when the gift you’re bestowing upon the entire society is not easily comprehended, the Bavarian audience not quite knowing who the great composer is or what his then experimental operas mean for the history of musical theater? Resentment that your King is focusing so forcibly upon an outsider is obviously one of the first reactions, particularly given the highly conservative, religious cabinet members of Bavarian government who are also appalled that Ludwig was not only paying for the production of Wagner’s new opera, Tristan and Isolde, but would build a new house for the composer, a new theater for the opera’s production, and pay for the composer’s previous debts, to say nothing of paying the salary of the conductor Hans von Bülow (Mark Burns) and his wife Cosima (Silvana Mangano) the later of whom, Bavarian secret agents soon discover, was having an affair with Wagner of which her husband was aware but  remained silent simply to maintain his position.

     In short, Ludwig was betrayed by those receiving his philanthropy and his best friend whom he has brought to Münich as his to the masses. One of the most painfully moving scenes on the first part of the film is when Ludwig must finally request that his “best friend”—one of several men in which throughout his life to whom he bears his soul and puts his trust who does not live up to his demands—leave the city. But even then Ludwig promises continued support and would latter help fund the Bayreuth productions of Wagner’s greatest achievement Der Ring des Nibelungen. Without Ludwig we would not have the Wagner that most of us know and love today. 

     To describe Ludwig as “mostly a rotter,” as Canby does or, even worse, as Ebert characterizes the “Mad King,” “an egotistical little martinet,” rather misses the point. If Visconti is fascinated by his subject, it is not as both critics hint that he pruriently enjoys visiting the Bavarian Royal’s sexual depravities, but because, despite all the horrific epithets that were heaped upon him, Ludwig did truly accomplish a great deal that history has revealed as being of notable worth. And Visconti is not just speaking of what some might describe as a “dabbling” in music and a “hobby” of building fantastical castles such as the wondrous and highly “kitsch” fairy-like bastions of Schloß Neuschwanstein, Schloß Linderhof, and Schloß Herrenchiemsee—all now popular tourist attractions which, it was later discovered were paid for by his royal allowance not with public monies, having since reaped the Bavarian State a fortune over the years, while even at the time of their construction bringing considerable wealth to workers on the poorer regions of Bavaria where  they were built. (Visconti does, however, give us a long grand tour of these castles as Elizabeth inspects each of them after hearing of governmental complaints of Ludwig’s expenditures.)

     What Ludwig accomplished in his abhorrence, as he describes it to Elizabeth, of “wars, weddings, babies” and his family’s “incestuous and fratricidal” activities, the director intimates was to create an entirely new concept of how monarchies might be employed in the many European countries in which they have continued to exist into our own century. By refusing the involve himself in any matters with the disastrous Austrian-Bavarian alliance against the far more dominant Prussians, Ludwig removed himself from involvement with everyday politics and became the symbol of power rather than its executor, much the way the European monarchs serve their countries today. In a sense, Ludwig showed Europe how to deal with its archaic leaders who would soon lead them into World War I, with its ultimate ramifications being the tragic world struggle of World War II. Ludwig, as the Visconti’s film shows us, was radically opposed to the Bavarian alliance with Prussia which clearly foretold both Wars and—particularly given the conservative elements which helped depose Ludwig and the fact that Adolf Hitler spent most his childhood living in Lower Bavaria—would help the Bavarian rightists gain power in Germany long after Ludwig was dead. 

     While these links are simply hinted at in Visconti’s biographically-based epic, they are made quite literal in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s anachronistic film, Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King of a year earlier. As cabinet members late in Visconti’s film plot discuss how to rid themselves of a King who will not politically involve himself, they also recognize that many of their fellow countrymen are absolutely delighted by Ludwig’s absence in the political arena.

      Indeed, Ludwig behaves throughout almost precisely as he has been raised to—except his refusal to attend family social occasions, present himself as a beneficent leader in public, and, by far most importantly, to marry and produce an heir.

      The latter is what is generally described by all as his greatest “eccentricity,” a code world even today for a homosexual, which, although not against the law in Bavaria, was still outlawed in Prussia (which may have played a role in Ludwig’s fierce refusal to join in an alliance with that country), and would have been unthinkable among Bavaria’s social elite. As Jonathan Romney summarizes it in his excellent commentary in Film Comment:

Ludwig’s doom was partly to do with what enemies in his court here term his “eccentricity”—in other words, his homosexuality.

      Budd Wilkins, in Slant expresses Visconti’s focus in this film in more general terms:

Visconti’s film is at bottom the attitudinal antithesis of a traditional biopic, eschewing the grand historical set pieces (an odd blend of battles and opera performances, in this instance) that would’ve been the bread and butter of a more conventional film. Ludwig instead becomes a penetrating character study of an individual isolated from, yet in thrall to, the dynastic royal family that rejects out of hand his natural proclivities and artistic instincts.

       If Visconti, accordingly, seems to some viewers to focus on Ludwig’s homosexuality—which I insist he most certainly does not—it is because the real problem the politicians face is not simply his exorbitant expenses, his isolation from his own countrymen, his “dabbling” in what was considered as the “esthete pleasures” of music, theater, and art, but his refusal to marry Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), Elizabeth’s sister, and bear a male who might take over the country upon his death.

     It’s not that Ludwig didn’t try. After intense counseling by the two men who were closest to him and obviously knew just what his eccentricities consisted of, Father Hoffman and the dashing Count Dürckheim (Helmut Griem)—both of whom attempt to convince him to abandon his natural instincts in service to the national cause—Ludwig struggles deeply to control his sexual inclinations. Both recognize, however, that just as Wagner is a genius, different from the others, so too is their beloved leader. To turn him into an ordinary being will surely be to kill him, just as it destroys his equally sensitive brother Otto (John Mouder), another young man whose “loneliness” we are told (perhaps we might read that as a coded word for his closeted existence) has made him insane.

     After one such conversation, Ludwig suddenly declares that he will marry Sophie, waking up the entire household and calling Father Hoffman to his side to declare his intentions. Yet, Hoffman and even Ludwig’s mother (Izabella Teleżyńska) recognize that the young man’s sudden enthusiasm—today Ludwig most certainly would be defined as suffering from bipolar disorder—is a problematic joy. Hoffman is highly skeptical of the whole event. And Ludwig’s mother Marie and associates higher proceed to hire a stage actress to initiate him into how to engage in heterosexual behavior.

      Without having any of her sister’s worldly knowledge and abilities to cope, Sophie is nonetheless a beautiful and well-trained woman. She, unlike Elizabeth, even shares her fiancé’s love of Wagner. But to hear her sing while playing the piano is, as Berger’s preposterous passive expression reveals, a true torture; he even takes a small revenge by encouraging his friend Wagner to ask her to privately perform for him. Fortunately, the wise and crafty survivor, foregoes the pleasure. 

      Ludwig continually postpones the wedding, ostensibly because of the fact that he will have face an endless series of social gatherings. Eventually he cancels it altogether, sparing Sophie years of suffering.

      Despite Visconti’s own homosexual relationships with the last king of Italy, Umberto II, the notorious director of operas, films, and theater Franco Zeffirelli, and this film’s Ludwig as well as the rich sensuous quality of the cinematic images in almost all of his films, he has seldom  represented homosexual sex as a passionate or sensual affair. And here, once more, we never see Ludwig engaged in sex or even in bed with another man. The clearest evidence of Ludwig’s desire is the gentle kiss he plants on the forehead of a sleeping servant. We observe Ludwig almost having an orgasm as he listens to the handsome stage actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) declaim passages from a role that has made him famous.

     The sexual energy it releases in Ludwig, however, is not at all what might normally be described as love-making, as in another frenetic episode soon after, he demands that Kainz immediately join him on a voyage to Greece, Italy, and other countries while all the trip spouting passages from his  plays. While Ludwig is ready to offer up both body and soul, the voyage totally exhausts the venal Kainz (the actor expects to be paid for his sexual services with jewel-encrusted rings and watches) who finally collapses on a bench serving as the only bed into which Ludwig has apparently enticed him. Once more, a dear friend disappoints him in love.

     If there is any sign of sex in Visconti films it is that of the voyeur staring into at the body of his would-be lover with desire (as in Death in Venice) or in the aftermath of an orgy of sexual drunkenness (as in the scene of the young SS officers in The Damned). Here Visconti conjures up just such a scene, which I would describe as a tableau or frieze of sexual satiation with an entire small battalion of stable boys, soldiers, and servants—only in sex was Ludwig a true “man of the people”—having fallen to the floor and even hanging out naked in the trees in the lavish imitation of a Bavarian beer-stube that the King has evidently carved out of his castle grottos. We see sex portrayed in Ludwig and his other films only as a consummation, something that has burned away all desire to leave us only a vast portrait of a debauchery of the imagination. It is, like all of Ludwig’s endeavors, a theatrical representation of love having little to do with a literal gathering of men to suck and fuck. Like the movie itself, it is a piece of art in which no prisoners of the heart are left standing.

     I should imagine that was precisely how the Bavarian bourgeoise pictured Ludwig’s grand “eccentricities”; after all, hadn’t he already expressed his sensibility in the extravaganzas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and three fairytale castles? Could they truly have conjured up the rather pudgy, rotten-toothed, frowzily dressed, worn-out King that Helmut Berger portrays at film’s end? A king being so grandly conceived, must be able to corrupt all those around him, including the society itself. Action therefore immediately necessary, despite the fact that Ludwig now acted only in private and had no longer any contact with the world in his rule. Surely, he might simply have been left alone to die alone in a corner of one of his castles, mourned by a nation of followers who truly conceived the aristocracy as fantastical beings.

     The only way the government could imagine for destroying the beast they had created, however, was to pretend to use science in order cure it. A psychiatrist,  Professor Bernhard von Gudden (Heinz Moog) was called upon to access the situation and certify Ludwig as being of unsound mind. His report read: 

             His Majesty is in the advanced stage of a mental disorder

             known as paranoia. Such a disorder does not allow freedom

             of action. And such incapability will continue for the rest

             of his life.

Even if we were to forget the fact that just such plots to depose the King—which he long before suspected—might have led to any signs of paranoia Ludwig might have shown, the real tactic was to describe his “eccentricities” (his sexual “disorder) as representative of mental illness. It certainly wasn’t the first nor the last of many such proclamations used to silence homosexual individuals Although it is hard to imagine, even I, in my youth, would have been labeled mentally ill by The American Psychiatric Association and possibly arrested by the local police for illegal activities if I had been found acting out my sexual desires.

     The Ludwig we see at the end of this film, moreover, seems utterly enraged but totally sane, releasing the cabinet members he had briefly imprisoned for their actions, and recognizing that he had no choice but to obey their demands to be locked up in Berg castle on Lake Starnberg, just south of his now hated Münich. He is sane enough to know that his enemies are insistent upon “keeping me alive by killing me just as my brother (Otto).” He seeks the keys to the parapets of the castle in which now resides so that he might hurl himself to his death and, when that fails, he seeks out poison from his only ally, Count Dürckheim,” his request refused by the man who still loves him.

     When he was finally allowed to walk the lake paths with von Gudden, he seemingly strangles von Gudden before drowning himself in the lake. Rumors persist even today, however, that since Ludwig was a strong swimmer and no water was evidently found in his lungs that he was shot to death, perhaps by Count von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini), who told others he would notify them of Ludwig’s discovery with one shot. In Visconti’s film two shots are fired.

     Visconti’s film suggests that King Ludwig II, perhaps unintentionally, performed the role as an existentialist gay man—so different from Oscar Wilde who a few years later would suffer out his imprisonment—who one might describe as the first modern gay hero. He did not destroy himself out of infamy or shame, but rather to escape the imprisonment and silence imposed upon him, to retain his freedom. We can even imagine his killing of von Gudden as representing a kind of revenge against the society that could not embrace the gentle Frankenstein it had created. His desire to remain an enigma, finally, might be perceived as an attempt to fully claim his strangeness, the queerness that stood against everyday social niceties, pious complacency, and the petty hate that begat warring, while buggering body and soul, beauty and art. 

Los Angeles, March 31, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema and World Cinema Review (March 2021).


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