(Dir. Luchino Visconti) (1972)
Ludwig II of Bavaria led a life of the mind and was a genuine original in a time of puppet kings and jumped-up Germanic principalities. Therefore a period film of his tumultuous life, his reluctant ascension, his shaky romances, his celebrated patronage of Wagner, the night train and sleigh rides to nowhere, his decline into madness, his mysterious death…all sumptuously filmed in situ by the consummate Luchino Visconti, director of masterpieces such as La Terra Trema, Senso, The Leopard, Death in Venice…couldn’t miss, right?
Wrong. It looks terrific, and Helmut Berger suggests something of the King’s inner torment, but we are the ones mostly constrained under torment. At the risk of being personal, the whole melange strikes a metallic click on one’s tongue, leading the phrase “vanity project” to form. The Director, usually unerring, has fallen for the scenery (yes, human and natural) and allowed things to meander on, and on…and on. It’s as if Visconti had a stroke during filming. (Wait, that’s right; he did.)
There are more “significant glances” scattered around than you’d harvest from the set of Days of Our Lives. Ludwig glares severely at all the women (Mother, Sophie, Sissi) and drools over the young men. The dialogue, including too many cinéma-vérité throws to camera, is leaden and unedifying. There’s a lot of unfair ranting and slanders about Wagner. Set pieces abound, to dubious effect and of doubtful purpose.
The Varnished Culture thinks Ludwig II its kind of King – fond of art over commerce, love over war – an admirer of Wagner long before it was fashionable. Personally, he was probably hard work. There are nice touches in Berger’s portrayal, including the sad decline of his teeth. But it’s mostly a series of entrances and exits, administrative pas de deux that advance the story and our understanding not an iota.
As we mentioned, this production is not kind to Wagner but Trevor Howard looks the part. Silvana Mangano radiates Cosima’s intensity. Romy Schneider is terrific as Empress Elisabeth. John Moulder-Brown is just right as loopy younger brother Prince Otto. Actually, everyone looks the part; the problem is simply that they are asked to act like marionettes. In Ludwig’s case, he is meant to be arch, stiff, shyly formal and uncomfortable in his own skin, but he doesn’t have to talk and walk like a member of International Rescue from The Thunderbirds.