directed by Luchino Visconti
starring Helmut Berger, Trevor Howard, Silvana Mangano
If anyone gave us the Disney dream of a king in a turreted castle, it was Ludwig II of Bavaria. He inherited this prosperous and independent state in 1864, but had no interest in running it or chasing women, either. He loved Wagner’s music, spent lavishly, and nearly bankrupted the country. More importantly, he refused to join with the Prussians to create unified Germany. In this lovingly filmed biopic, we meet Ludwig (Berger) as he moons over Wagner’s (Howard) music. It’s lush and romantic and sends the Prince into ecstasy over a fantasy world that could never be real. But Ludwig has money and he IS a king, so he builds a castle complete with a grotto and swan boats. This is Neuschwanstein; it’s the place you see on every German travel poster.
We meet some of his chaste loves. Actor Jacob Kainz (Folker Bohnet) wows Ludwig at a private performance and is invited to visit for a long weekend; things are awkward until and aide advises: “The king invited Romeo to castle Linderhof, not Herr Kainz.” Kainz takes the bait and plays all is best roles until Ludwig’s obsession exhausts him. Meanwhile, the men who actually run Bavaria are appalled, they take the risky path of deposing Ludwig in one of the dampest rainstorms ever filmed. By now Ludwig is red eyed and sliding into madness. He attempts to flee to a tower (how romantic…) with his good-looking aid Dürckheim (Helmut Griem). Failing this, he’s put in a very nice insane asylum, where Professor Von Gudden (Heinz Moog) attempts to treat him with respect and psychoanalysis. It costs both of them their lives.
Berger begins as an attractive young man in a film full of them. His teeth are horrible, but his eyes and his hair scream “German romanticism.” As he slides down the hill, he gradually takes on the look of Vincent Price after a good cry. His aide-de-camp Druckhiem is more the young Robert Redford type, and he has some great “Agonizing over what to say next moments” as he gives the testimony that condemns Ludwig, his best friend. There’s a homoerotic undertone here that seems dissipated. It’s not a plot driver, but just another baroque backdrop in a film full of such ornate decor. But that decor was as much a part of the film as the actors. The locations were all Ludwig’s extravagant fancies, and their names role off the tongue like Wagnerian heroes: Herrenchiemsee, Hohenschwangau, Linderhof, Neuschwanstein, Nymphenburg. Ludwig is a tragic hero just as he imagined himself. He was popular and good looking and his fall from grace is operatic. But one need not look far, such faults as brought down Ludwig are still in full force today. Material for the opera never gets scarce.