Ludwig is Great Cinema. It is also a lot of fun, lavish to a tee, camp as hell and a bit sad. This utterly magnificent film is a must see – you will swoon with joy and envy while reflecting how far contemporary period drama cinema has fallen into the doldrums of cliché, CGI and austerity.
This is a film you can immerse yourself in – it is one big opulent, magnificent obsession. The project was one director Visconti (known to some as the ‘commie Count’ as he was both an aristocrat and a member of the Communist Party) had cherished for years, and with it he topped off a career featuring some of the most lavish, beautifully realised and downright decadent films in cinema history (Senso, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, The Damned, Death in Venice). With Ludwig, he pulled out all the stops.
Ludwig tells the tragic tale of King Ludwig the Second of Bavaria from his coronation in 1864 to his suspicious death in a reed-edged lake in 1886. Ludwig (Berger) is shown as an aesthete, a philosopher king, a snowflake sovereign who cares more about the music of his friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) and building grand castles than about politics or his people. He loves candy, he loves his cousin Empress Elizabeth (Romy Schneider), he loves young footmen and pages.
Berger, who was in a relationship with Visconti at the time, plays both the idealist and the decadent with hard-eyed restraint, but the drama and the tragedy seeps through. Despite his great wealth, Ludwig’s situation is tragic – and not just because he must deny his sexuality for most of the film, or that he can only express it as his power wanes, which itself makes his replacement and murder all the more certain. Ludwig is a living in a gilded cage from the beginning, the pomp itself a symptom of his largely symbolic status as sovereign power is transferred to a civil government.
Visconti’s great success here is to make us feel Ludwig’s pain, as well as the grandness of the visual décor and the set pieces, many of them filmed in the real castles. Visconti is a genius of mis-en-scene (the construction of the film to have a certain look and feel); but he is also great with actors, here giving them the screen time to highlight in speech the personal impacts of grand historical events.
There are so many stunning sequences in Ludwig, but the deliriously camp ‘swan grotto’ sequence is worth the price of the film alone. I found myself playing several sequences over and over again to see how they are put together, such as the scene where Romy Schneider enters the grand hall at Herrenchiemsee Palace and bursts out laughing as the camera pans around her. That’s a pretty appropriate response to the whole big, beautiful film.
This release includes a wealth of extras:
Two viewing options: the full-length theatrical cut or as five individual parts
Original Italian soundtrack with optional English subtitles
Original English soundtrack available on home video for the first time ever with optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand-new interview with actor Helmut Berger
Luchino Visconti, an hour-long documentary portrait of the director by Carlo Lizzani (Wake Up and Kill, Requiescant) containing interviews with Burt Lancaster, Vittorio Gassman, Francesco Rosi, Claudia Cardinale and others
Speaking with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, an interview with the screenwriter
Silvana Mangano: The Scent Of A Primrose, a half-hour portrait of the actress
Ludwig is out in a dual format edition on 27 March 2017.