German King Ludwig II of Bavaria, often known as the enigmatic Swan King or Fairy Tale King, remains one of world history’s most eccentric, peculiar, fascinating and possibly truly madcap political figures of our time. Having taken office when he was only eighteen, the Bavarian King is something of a tragic, almost childlike figure of endless scrutiny throughout human history. Rather than address his designated official duties and deal with state affairs and other governing obligations, King Ludwig II instead devoted his attentions to providing a financial safety net to composer Richard Wagner as well as the commissioning of outlandishly extravagant architectural projects including the lavish Neuschwanstein Castle and four others.
Self-indulgent to a monumental extreme not seen since the creation of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, Ludwig II came dangerously close to bankrupting Bavaria as there seemed to be no end in sight to his spending on castles and cathedrals for no other reason than his own occasional paranoid promenades through the empty hallways. Something had to be done and eventually fellow congressmen conspired to use his spending and deteriorating physical and mental health as a declaration of his insanity and inability to govern state affairs, an accusation as mercurial and uncertain as his eventual death by way of drowning.
Through a most unusual twist of fate, those very castles which nearly destroyed the Bavarian economy now represent the country’s most popular and lucrative tourist attractions from all over the world. Inevitably, this still enigmatic genius/madman/man-child of a “king” became the subject of many literary, musical and cinematic adaptations attempting to dramatize the mysterious figure’s life, including two silent films from Germany and six more films ranging from 1955 to 2012. The longest running and most comprehensive cinematic biography of the mysterious king to date is arguably the great Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s sprawling and grandiose epic 235 minute 1972 epic, Ludwig, now being released in a boxed set courtesy of Arrow Video in a brand new 4K restoration.
As with his prior work, the film is a sprawling mixture of Italian neorealism and opulent romanticism, serving as a perfect backdrop for the Bavarian King to meander, indulge and sink further into delirium. For the great director behind the Palme d’Or winning The Leopard, Ludwig represented the final installment of his loosely connected German Trilogy, beginning with The Damned and Death in Venice while also showcasing his leading actor/lover Helmut Berger as the titular mad Bavarian King. Opposite Berger is veteran Visconti actress Romy Schneider as Ludwig’s distant cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria, sharing his lofty romantic notions while not blind to his increasingly erratic withdrawal from rationality. Also a key figure in the proceedings is English actor Trevor Howard as the arrogant yet prominent composer Wagner, though as with many Italian productions some will find his dialogue dubbed over in Italian to be somewhat disconcerting.
Utilizing the real locations the legendary King commissioned, the film is at once a scenic travelogue chronicling the gradual creation of the architectural wonders while stylizing the King’s simultaneous swan dive into increasingly wretched sensual excess while evoking his ever growing isolation. A most telling scene follows the aftermath of what appears to be a gay orgy in an oversized, almost fantastical treehouse of sorts with half-naked men sleeping around the structure as the enigmatic King strolls with utter detachment through the fantasy land of his creating. As the film draws you further into Ludwig’s mental state and deeper into his still awe inspiring structural wonders, the film begins to take on the look and feel of a colorful, almost neon-fluorescent fairy tale with extravagant opulence so thick you wonder why Ken Russell didn’t try to tackle the Bavarian King during his career.
Anyone going into Ludwig or any of the sibling cinematic adaptations that have come and gone over the years already know the outcome, though Visconti takes great care not to make artistic license of the facts including letting the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery. Visconti’s film isn’t so much interested in the outcome as it is trying to pick the legendary madman’s brain, trying to understand what made the tragic, indulgent and possibly brilliant figure tick. Furthermore, Ludwig is primarily concerned with how he got as far as he did in the creation of his perfect bubble shielding him from reality and how close he came to completely sending Bavaria’s economy belly up in the process.
As a Visconti film, Ludwig is chock full of visual wonders, fine performances from the international cast and gets as close to the mental state of the Bavarian King as any cinematic adaptation has ever attempted. Though moving at a deliberately slow pace and intentionally leaving out details of how the castles were erected, Ludwig is an engrossing, relentlessly fascinating watch which draws you into a kind of netherworld of opulent visual splendor and the fragile psyche of the man responsible for their creation. In addition to being one of the most fascinating and elegant biopics I’ve come across in some time, it piqued my own interest in the Bavarian King and gave new meaning to the significance of his castles and why they remain for all time some of the most extravagant manmade structures on the face of the Earth.
- Andrew Kotwicki