Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig is the final film in the director’s so-called “German trilogy.” The Damned refracts the Weimer Republic’s slide into decadence and Nazism through the shifting fortunes of a prosperous industrialist family. Death in Venice limns the undoing of a world-famous composer in a volcanic eruption of long-repressed desires. And Ludwig chronicles the mental and physical deterioration of Bavarian King Ludwig II, builder of fairy-tale castles and patron of the composer Richard Wagner. But 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.
Visconti and his co-screenwriters hit upon an innovative structural technique: They intersperse the flow of events, bookended by Ludwig’s coronation at the age of 19 and the circumstances surrounding his mysterious death some 20 years later, with talking-head testimonials from court insiders and cabinet ministers who’ve been brought before a tribunal in an attempt to depose the king on account of mental unfitness. Through this technique, the film can freely comment on larger world-historical events, as well as provide some much-needed sociopolitical context, while still keeping its dramatic focus largely fixed on the king and his turbulent inner life.
The king (Helmut Berger) signals his true priorities soon after assuming the throne: He sends for Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard), agreeing to settle the composer’s considerable burden of debt, and setting him up in a domestic ménage with conductor Hans von Bülow (Mark Burns) and his wife, Cosima (Silvana Mangano), that soon topples over into public scandal. True to the film’s oblique approach to its subject matter, we’re treated to the inexplicably comical sight of Wagner wrestling his massive sheepdog to the floor, but we see nary a trace of the momentous premiere of Tristan and Isolde. Similarly, late in the film, Wagner’s death is metonymically represented by nothing more than a shot of a black veil draped over a rococo armoire.
The thematic core of Visconti’s film consists of a long conversation between Ludwig and his adviser, Count Dürckheim (Helmut Griem). They engage in a melancholy tête à tête lamenting the seemingly intractable tensions between, on the one hand, Ludwig’s courtly duties and dynastic responsibilities and, on the other, his self-professed quest for freedom from the moral and cultural strictures of the society over which he ostensibly wields such immense power. Throughout the film, Ludwig shows nothing short of contempt for the internecine power struggles between neighboring nations—all of which are, as the film is keen to point out, ruled over by members of his extended family. To this end, there’s a poignant scene between Ludwig and his younger brother, Otto (John Moulder-Brown), who’s just back from the front in the ongoing war with Bismarck’s Prussia. Otto’s subsequent mental breakdown both presages Ludwig’s own and cheekily asserts that the king’s deterioration is as much a result of pervasive and chronic inbreeding as any other defect.
Ludwig is equally conflicted about his attraction to his cousin, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider). Schneider played a younger, more freewheeling version of Empress “Sissi” in a wildly successful trilogy of films back in the 1950s; here Elizabeth comes across as older and colder, content to use her palpable hold over Ludwig in an unsuccessful bid to broker a marriage to her younger sister, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna). Visconti’s film seems to suggest that Ludwig channels his disappointment over these developments into an increasing acknowledgement of his own homosexual inclinations. Indeed, Ludwig is at its most Godfather-esque in the sequence that ends its first half, cutting tellingly between the king surreptitiously acting on his attraction to valet Richard Hornig (Marc Porel) and “confessing” himself innocent in this regard to Father Hoffmann (Gert Fröbe).
By necessity, the film’s second half is preoccupied with Ludwig’s quasi-Shakespearean decline and fall. The already deliberate pace slackens, and there are long stretches where the swelling strains of the soundtrack fade into lugubrious silence. One exception, which is there to provide a kind of counterpoint, is the scene where Wagner debuts his sensual “Siegfried Idyll” as a birthday-cum-Christmas present for Cosima, the chamber orchestra arrayed along a double staircase in a meticulously staged tableau. More and more, Ludwig seems lost amid the cavernous spaces of his castles. And the scene where Elizabeth pays a belated visit to Linderhof has an eerie, spectral quality, like something out of a Gothic novel. Ludwig comes to its tragic close with one truly bravura sequence: the torch-lit search for the missing king along the misty shores of Lake Starnberg, a manhunt that ends with the almost offhand announcement of Ludwig’s death.
Arrow Video’s four-disc box set gives you plenty of choices when it comes to tucking into Visconti’s sumptuous visual banquet. Ludwig is available in a two-part theatrical version, or a five-part television presentation, and can be listened to in either Italian or English. The English-language theatrical presentation stems from a truncated 173-minute cut of the film, so there’s still about an hour’s worth of Italian in this version, but that shouldn’t put off viewers accustomed to seamlessly branched extended cuts like the one for Dario Argento’s Deep Red, for example. The 2K restoration looks nothing short of stunning, capturing Armando Nannuzzi’s cinematography in all its profligate glory. Colors are richly saturated, flesh tones look suitably lifelike (especially in close-up), and fine details of the extravagant interiors and lavish costumes register cleanly. Lowlight scenes evince some loss of delineation and detail, a few minor instances of crushing, and some noticeable grain noise. But overall this is an impressive transfer. The PCM mono tracks sound excellent overall, with at times just a touch of tininess in the upper registers of the score, and a few discernible mismatches in the soundtrack that have been specifically addressed in the liner notes.
Arrow assembles almost three hours' worth of bonus materials spread, like the film itself, across two Blu-ray and DVD discs. The cases and booklet are housed in a sturdy slipcase emblazoned with original poster art. Extras include two newly commissioned interviews: Actor Helmut Berger talks candidly about his private and professional relationship with Visconti and producer Dieter Geissler discusses putting together the money to mount the most expensive European production at the time, getting permission from the proper authorities to film on location in Bavaria, Romy Schneider's drinking problem, and the different versions of the film.
The remaining extras have been ported over from earlier DVD editions of Ludwig. Carlo Lizzani's hour-long documentary provides an excellent overview of Visconti's life and work, including some poignant reminiscences from actors Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, and director Francesco Rosi. The interview with screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico mixes in archival behind-the-scenes footage and snippets from her films. In the end, she has this advice for neophytes: "Read and steal. Steal from books. Films have already stolen." The profile of actress Silvana Mangano is actually more interesting than your average puff piece, painting a portrait of a complex woman who was often crassly objectified for her good looks (she had been named Miss Rome 1946), felt deeply ambivalent about the vicissitudes of film acting, yet married producer-mogul Dino de Laurentiis and let him dictate her choice of roles. The densely illustrated perfect-bound booklet contains an edifying essay from Peter Cowie, extracts from contemporary reviews, an interview with Suso Cecchi d'Amico from 1986, and technical details about the restoration.
Luchino Visconti's magisterial character study receives a stunning 2K restoration and a brace of excellent supplements.