A gaggle of men in formal wear, their collars stiff and blue coats festooned with medals and ropes knotted into different patterns, stand as straight as antenna. It’s a room of immense affluence. The splendor is almost surreal, everything in its right place. The camera pans, prowls, zooming in on faces, on hands and decor, as if smitten or in awe of the decadence. In an adjacent room, a young man with an immaculate face which is frozen in a feigned look of calmness downs a glass of champagne. He paces. Soon, he is told the time has come. The doors open. Bedecked in their glittering symbols of honor and prestige, the men put a crown on his head; they raise a coat the color of wine and drape it over his shoulders. It takes four people to carry the cape. There is now a new king, and he will, by the end of his a reign, be declared mentally insane.
Ludwig, Luchino Visconti’s opulent four-hour opus about King Ludwig II, a film rooted in reality but whose lushness and fluidity lend it the fleeting, diaphanous air of a dying man’s daydream, could only be made by someone initiated into a life of royalty. Visconti was a Count by birth (and later a member of the Italian Communist party, by his own volition), born in 1906 to a family that owned Milan from 1277 to 1447 and still possessed tremendous influence and wealth during the filmmaker’s adolescence. He was raised in an ancestral palazzo, and knew no shortage of comforts and grand concessions. Before developing a fervor for film, he aspired to breed racehorses, and one wonders what, exactly, his family made of his change of vocation. Ludwig, whose depiction of unbridled decadence might feel oneiric to a proletarian viewer (his encapsulation of the garishness of the rich is befuddling, vexing, enthralling), is imbued with a kind of knowledgeable, quiet disdain only possible by someone ensconced in regality, who has tasted fine champagne chilled in a glistening silver integument, who was trained to have the posture of a flag pole, and who has never had to make a bed or wash a dish in his life. It’s a film of frills, of excesses, as sumptuous and magnificent as the extravagant cape draped over King Ludwig’s shoulders. The textures—velvet and gossamer, golden ornate adornments that gleam in the light of chandeliers and candles whose flames flicker and dance and cast warm flaxen light on the stoical faces of the affluent and authoritative—are every bit as beautiful and grandiose as in The Leopard (1963), usually heralded as Visconti’s masterpiece, but there’s a tragic air pervading this depiction of the ruling class. Ludwig is too human to be a king. He is lonely, repressed; he believes in the rejuvenating power of music. He never had a chance.
The film is playing in a glorious new, restored 35mm print at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, culled from a bevy of sources including Visconti’s original negatives; its week-long run closes out FSLC’s fabulous Visconti retrospective, the most successful retro they’ve ever had, with 15 sold-out screenings. (It was, for many of these films, chaos in the Film Society’s Walter Reade theatre, and one would be shocked to see how aggressive and labile a crowd of mostly older patrons can get when trying to find a seat for The Leopard.) Ludwig follows the king from his ascendancy, at the age of 18, to his mysterious death, shortly after his cabinet declares him insane and usurps him. Visconti allegedly never saw the final cut himself, suffering from an erosion of his physical faculties, and crippled with despair from the butcher job producers and distributors did to the four-hour film, hewing it into multiple shorter cuts, each a travesty. It was restored by Ludwig’s editor and writer and premiered in 1980, four years after the director’s death. It is perhaps the apotheosis of Visconti’s style of baroque and languorous realism, the final film he made before his body began to fail him, and a paean to a style of filmmaking that shortly thereafter went out of style. Since the libidinous obsessions of his feature debut Ossessione (1943, adapted from the James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice),Visconti was fascinated by the dichotomy between passions and the rigor of class, between desire and duty. Ludwig II (Helmut Berger) becomes King of Bavaria, having little experience ruling countries, and almost immediately his eccentricities and odd affinities cause problems within parliament. (The film is interspersed with testimonies from parliamentarians and former members of Ludwig’s inner coterie, all shot with menacing chiaroscuro lighting before a dark blue background as they pontificate on Ludwig’s unbecoming, bugbear behavior and his injudicious decisions.) Ludwig immediately requests that Richard Wagner, later Hitler’s favorite composer, be brought to Bavaria at any cost. If Wagner can make Bavaria his home and write an opera here, it will inspire the citizens, he thinks. (This thinking is, at once, admirably naive, as it places great importance on arts and culture, yet also frustratingly privileged, as it assumes the poor denizens of the withering country give a damn about opera.) Wagner, an exploiter, takes Ludwig’s money carte blanche and begins to redecorate his home, while the parliamentarians pull out their hair. When Ludwig tells his Queen, “I’ll introduce you to Richard Wagner,” apparently what he considers a seductive line, he intones the name with unabashed and unfeigned adoration, the same solemnity and reverence reserved for when one is addressing God. For Ludwig, art is the reason to live. Wagner’s “poetry is music, and his music is poetry.” Ludwig is a young, inexperienced idealist. Soon, his idealism will transmute into a solipsistic obsession. Instead of giving art to the people, he forces artists to perform for him. He conjures an impermeable, hermetic world, sequesters himself from the world and its hegemony of cruelties.
Berger has a boyish, yet somehow sinister beauty, redolent of a young Alain Delon. His face is smooth and angular, almost mask-like, with high cheekbones and blue eyes throwing stiletto stares. There’s something almost artificial, almost unnerving, about his flawlessness at the beginning of the film. Berger was Visconti’s lover and muse, and the lovesick director films him with a fawning, almost Empyrean grandeur. In one scene around the three-hour mark, Ludwig, still wrestling with his homosexuality, walks into a room aglow with the writhing warmth of a fire, the amber light washing over the torso of a lissome young man. It’s a brief scene, and nothing happens, but you can feel the tension as Ludwig gazes at this object of unattainable longing. Sets and decorations are lavish and spectacular, but it is Berger with whom Visconti is most enamored.
Over time, Ludwig’s boyish allure fades, gives way to the despotic, increasingly absurd demands of a bedridden, portly paranoid, his teeth blackened, skin pallid, the sharpness of his eyes deadened, as if all that leering and staring has dulled their shine. Into his tenebrous room he recedes, using chloroform to sleep. He spends money superfluously—on singers, actors, comely young men upon whom he bestows gifts, jewelry, gold watches. He hires a thespian to perform monologues on command, wearing out the poor boy with his importunate demands and stipulations. Like a rider who rides his horse to death, Ludwig forces his ensnared actor to perform dauntlessly, until his memory falters and exhaustion renders him useless.
Though Ludwig shares an obvious formal and aesthetic kinship with The Leopard, it feels, in its portrayal of loneliness and forlorn longing, closer in spirit to Visconti’s adaptations of Death in Venice (1971) and The Stranger (1967), films about societal and emotional ostracization. Death in Venice, phlegmatic and teeming with libidinous glances and unrequited desires, concerns a composer named Gustav who, while on vacation for his health, becomes beguiled by a young boy, a corporeal manifestation of the innocence and beauteousness for which he has been searching—in art, in life. Like Ludwig, he suffers from a forbidden, insalubrious lust. Gustav is an outsider, not unlike Marcello Mastroianni’s existential outcast in The Stranger, and not unlike Ludwig. All of these men, stubborn and steadfastly holding to their convictions, fail to assimilate, refuse to compromise their beliefs. The Stranger’s Meursault, who makes a modest income as a clerk, shoots and kills an Arab on the beach, and is put on trial not for the murder, but for his own emotional reticence; that he failed to cry at his mother’s funeral becomes the main focus of a farcical trial replete with bellowing and histrionic gesticulations by a pious prosecutor who declares Meursault evil for failing to adhere to normal Christian values. He is sentenced to death by decapitation in a public square, and, in the film’s final moments, as he skulks in darkness awaiting his own demise, he muses that he hopes many people show up to his execution, and that they hate him. Ludwig, too, dies a lonely death, found face-down after going for a walk with a friend. The film leaves his death a mystery, but makes one thing exceptionally clear: the most powerful person in Bavaria can still be powerless, alone, unloved; he was killed by his passions, and by the people who did not share them.
Ludwig is playing at New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center June 22 - 28, 2018 in the series Visconti: A Retrospective.