Luchino Visconti | 3hr 58min
The final piece of Luchino Visconti’s thematic ‘German Trilogy’ speaks more directly to the nation’s true history than its largely fictitious predecessors, and in striving to chronicle such dense passages of monarchical politics, he also ends up with his longest film yet. Ludwig stands at an imposing four hours long, though quite astoundingly, its pacing never drags. The odd exception here is in those uninspired, documentary-like monologues delivered to the camera by various supporting players in King Ludwig II’s life, offering criticisms of his rule that would never otherwise be expressed freely in his royal court. This is a far stronger film when it is interrogating such dissent as an extension of its rigorous character study, targeting the strange mix of sexual insecurities, mental illnesses, and artistic obsessions which roil around in the Mad King’s troubled mind. Within the opulent palaces of 19th century Bavaria, he loses himself in the decadence of extreme wealth and fantastical dreams, and Visconti beautifully details it all in his exquisite, operatic staging.
With his angular eyebrows, sharp jawline, and bright blue eyes, Austrian actor Helmet Berger is a dashing fit for the role of the young King, who ascended to the throne at the age of 18. His sensitivity is revealed in his two great passions – the classical music of German composer Richard Wagner, who he seeks to relocate to Bavaria, and his charming cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria, whose affection he pursues. The first half of Ludwig is dominated by these storylines, manifesting as a pair of romanticised ideals that can never quite compete with the realities and pressures of being King.
Inside the royal halls of his reign, Visconti surrounds him with the sort of elaborate period designs that carry centuries of historical weight, precisely carved to the traditions of an empire renowned for its ravishing architecture, textiles, and décor. Colourful walls and large frescos often form ornate backdrops to the historical drama, which is blocked through meticulous arrangements extending deep into his compositions. In his vibrant office of embroidered seating and scarlet wallpaper, oil paintings hang in golden frames above its royal occupants, while elsewhere giant candelabras reach all the way up to the ceiling in a cavernous corridor. Softening the intensity of these painstakingly curated interiors are large, leafy plants, infusing otherwise contrived designs with a lush greenery not unlike that which Visconti used to similar effect in Death in Venice. It also helps that he shot many scenes on location at many of Ludwig’s actual castles, making the most of their authentic halls and exteriors as the settings for his dramatised historical account.
Ludwig certainly relishes this extravagant living, and yet he possesses a dreamer’s mind that is detached from reality, preferring to shape his surroundings into wondrous fairy tale images. Upon the grounds of Linderhof Palace, he whisks himself away into a fantastical, artificial grotto that he built with the intent of staging operas, and in a wooden room that seems to be built around a tree, he hosts orgies with his servants. In his ideal world, Wagner would have unlimited funding to keep on composing music, though such lofty aspirations of enriching the minds of the people is not easily realised with the artist’s philandering and profiteering, eventually forcing Ludwig to send his friend home. Likewise, his love for Elisabeth is stifled by the expectations placed on him as a King to instead marry her sister, Sophie, which itself is further complicated by his repressed homosexual desires.
Unsurprisingly, many of Ludwig’s handpicked companions are men who, despite his Catholic guilt, arouse a romantic desire in him. Against a deep purple sunrise, Volk the waiter strips down and goes swimming in the lake, while Ludwig surreptitiously watches from behind reeds obstructing Visconti’s voyeuristic shots. When the servant is thrown out, presumably due to the King’s own inner torment, he is simply replaced with another who continues to inspire a guilty lust. Later in life, his hiring of actor Josef Kainz to follow him around and recite poetry to the point of exhaustion manifests this sensitive longing as an eccentric, poisonous obsession, which only worsens with his degrading mental state.
This deterioration is a physical one as well, and Visconti’s stylistic choice to roam his camera around scenes with zoom lenses pays off particularly well when we begin moving into close-ups of Berger’s now-grotesque face. With his black teeth, unruly hair, and red-rimmed eyes, it is clear that all self-care has disappeared from his routine, while his pale skin bears the mark of his reclusiveness from the outside world. Berger conducts himself with obstinate hostility in many of these later scenes, furiously ranting against the Bavarian government who dare to commit treason against their King, and simultaneously digging his own grave with his unhinged behaviour.
From The Leopard to The Damned, Visconti’s storytelling has consistently sought to understand historical empires through the larger-than-life characters defining them, and yet even after four hours of studying Ludwig’s erratic reign, there still remains something compellingly mysterious about his legacy. As he is arrested and confined to a manor where he receives psychological treatment, his surroundings finally reflect the pitifully tragic state of Bavaria’s own monarchy. Opulent decadence is replaced by monochrome, minimalist décor, with only a few simple paintings and a cross adorning the stark, white walls of his bedroom. This “tyrant who knows no limits in order to indulge his fantasies” is stripped of even those, and denied the liberty to imagine anything but an escape from his desolate prison.
The lingering uncertainty of the deposed King’s memory is best summed up in Ludwig’s final freeze frame, his wet, lifeless face withholding any answers as to how he died. “I am an enigma. I want to be an enigma forever, for those outside my world and myself,” he tells his psychiatrist not long before his death, and through Visconti’s tenderly drawn characterisation of this lonely, troubled figure, he is perhaps, at the very least, granted his last wish.
Ludwig is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.