“A king cannot give scandal.”
In brief, so languidly does Ludwig (director Luchino Visconti’s epic biopic of “the Mad King of Bavaria,”) crawl to its 238 minute finish line that the film all but invalidates its claim as a motion picture.
Granted, you’re watching the paint dry on a palette of exquisitely composed images, magnificently shot by cinematographer Armando Nunnuzzi (I Knew Her Well); dazzling costumes (garnering a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Piero Tosi) and even some splendid performances—including Helmut Berger (Conversation Piece) in the title role—though nobody outdoes Trevor Howard’s (Von Ryan’s Express) almost supernatural take on famed composer Richard Wagner—but in the end, it’s a still portrait that emerges.
Purported to deal with the twenty one years from his ascension to the throne to his premature death at age forty (after being forced to abdicate, when his own court declared him insane), Ludwig nobly eschews tabloid-level titillation but ultimately stifles itself in courtly manners, with a surfeit of starched collars, clicked heels, deep bows and curtsies, etal.
Thus, the king’s rumored insatiable love/lust for his married cousin Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (Romy Schneider, reprising the role that made her a teenage star, in the Sissi film series) is reduced to little more than junior high-level banter, played out on long strolls throughout the manor, while Ludwig’s notorious homosexual urges are confined to sweaty prayer sessions after he spies one young male subject swimming nude and he later dreams of ravaging another. Pardon my yawns, sire.
Arrow Academy has accorded Ludwig with the kind of presentation most film spectaculars can only dream of. Housed in a handsomely illustrated box, this four disc set features Ludwig in both feature-length and 5 part TV miniseries form, the latter of which mercifully subtracts twenty one minutes from the proceedings.
“Restored in 2K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative” and framed at 2.35:1/1080, the eye-boggling imagery here is undeniable—more’s the pity that Visconti was so taken by his visuals that he was unable to cut when necessary. There are Italian and English sound options, though numerous scenes revert to (subtitled) Italian throughout, which makes sense, given the film’s makers, though it ill-serves the story’s Germanic settings. Optional English subtitles are available.
The bountiful bonus features include a DVD copy of the entire program, which features new interviews with Helmut Berger and producer Dieter Geissler, in addition to archival pieces on screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico and co-star Silvana Mangano, both long time Visconti collaborators. Finally, there’s an hour-long career retrospective on the man himself, which puts the master film maker’s contributions to cinema in proper context, while remaining thoroughly entertaining.
And for the thoroughly inexhaustible consumer, there’s also a beautifully illustrated, essay-chocked booklet and a look-in at the film’s theatrical trailer.
Though it provides only a facile examination of one of history’s most fascinating enigmas and it progresses at a glacial pace, Ludwig also packs too many riches into its obese frame to be dismissed out of hand. Recommended primarily for Visconti loyalists with extreme patience.
How much time have you got?