I find it difficult to dissociate my feelings about Ludwig: the Mad King of Bavaria from my personal history in relation to it. Despite disastrous reviews, I was eager to see it when first released, both because of my fondness for historical epics, and a precocious interest in Visconti. I asked the local art house theater to show it, but the film had sunk so terribly in its theatrical run, it was virtually impossible to get a print.
The version shown in North American theaters was a mess anyway. Viewers had to wait until after the director’s death to see a restored version (supervised by his frequent collaborator, Suso Cecchi D’Amico). I was able finally to see the movie when a friend brought a laserdisc copy of that version back from Japan, which however, was in Italian with Japanese subtitles. And while the restoration returned Ludwig to its original length, it also broke it into four parts.
The DVD version unfolds uninterrupted. The film’s grotesque reputation is clearly unwarranted, although to call Ludwig an “epic” is slightly misleading. Indeed, for me to emphasize my history with the film is in keeping with its intensely personal look at Ludwig. While staged on a huge scale, the political and historic significance of events is largely ignored. As just one example, the Franco-Prussian war, which was instrumental in subordinating Bavaria to the greater German Reich, takes place off-screen. Since Ludwig remains contemptuously uninvolved in that conflict, so does the film. There are no battle scenes, no large scale public events, not even trips to the opera as Ludwig discovers his passion for Wagner. The closest we get to a “big moment” is Ludwig’s coronation, where we only see him screwing up his nerve, not the crowning itself.
Reactions to the film are thus likely to be shaped by the viewer’s identification with Ludwig, which points to its major problem. We can recognize our own neuroses, fears, desperation, inadequacies and insecurities in Ludwig’s behavior. The catch is, he was a king, empowered to build fantasy castles at public expense, to patronize an arrogant spendthrift like Wagner, to do pretty much whatever he wanted as long as it wasn’t too outrageous. That’s hard for the average viewer to comprehend, much less see as a mirror of his or her life.
Perhaps Ludwig should be seen as Visconti’s projection of his aristocratic experience and relationship with the film’s star, Helmut Berger, on to the unhappy king. While this was not the last film Visconti and Berger made together, as Ludwig declines from gorgeous young man to fat, cloistered wreck, it is difficult not to wonder what the ordeal of playing the part did to their relationship. I do not normally like to guess how artworks reflect their creators’ lives. Like The Devil is a Woman, however, the last von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration, it is difficult not to look through the exquisite trappings in Ludwig to speculate on what was happening off camera.