(Italy/France/West Germany - 1973)
Directed by Luchino Visconti. Written by Luchino Visconti, Enrico Medioli and Suso Ceccho D'Amico. Cast: Helmut Berger, Romy Schneider, Trevor Howard, Silvana Mangano, Gert Frobe, Helmut Griem, Isabella Telezynska, Umberto Orsini, John Moulder Brown, Sonia Petrova, Folker Bohnet, Heinz Moog, Adriana Asti, Marc Porel, Nora Ricci, Mark Burns, Maurizio Bonuglia, Anne-Marie Hanschke, Gerard Herter, Henning Schluter, Eva Axen. (Unrated, 238 mins)
The most problematic work in the canon of the great Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, LUDWIG, an epic chronicle of the 1864-1886 reign of Ludwig II, "the mad king of Bavaria," was regarded as a beautiful but costly and self-indulgent folly upon its release in 1973. With an original running time of just under four hours, distributors all over the world balked at the film's length--so extreme that it seemingly depicted Ludwig's 22-year reign in real time--which led to a plethora of differing versions from country to country. In Italy, it was cut from 238 minutes to 186. US distributor MGM took the 186-minute version and cut it down to 173 for its NYC premiere in March 1973. That R-rated version was quickly withdrawn and LUDWIG was relaunched in Chicago a few months later at 137 minutes and re-rated PG, and that's the version that went into general release in the US over the summer and fall of 1973, running a full 101 minutes shorter than Visconti's intended vision (the PG cut presumably nixed any references toward Ludwig's sexual tendencies and a few scattered instances of male frontal nudity--were they concerned that a Visconti epic needed to bring in a younger demographic?). British audiences got the same 137-minute cut when it finally bowed in the UK in 1978, German moviegoers got a 144-minute version, and the Australian cut was whittled down a bit more to 133 minutes. Visconti apparently oversaw the first initial cut to 186 minutes for Italy and, whether willlingly or under duress, signed off on it, but beyond that, he was not involved in any further tweaks and alterations. Visconti died in 1976--his health worsened by a stroke he suffered midway through the shooting of LUDWIG--and over the years as the film fell into relative obscurity as the black sheep of a legendary auteur's filmography, there were so many different versions prepared for each market around the world, with so many wildly disparate running times that it became a virtual impossibility for anyone to remember what Visconti's intended LUDWIG even looked like.
reviewed the 137-minute re-edit for the Chicago Sun-Times in June 1973, awarding it one star out of four, it was apparently an incoherent dumpster fire that lost all but one of the periodic cutaways to Ludwig underlings giving testimony directly to the camera. These bits happen a lot in the complete version and help provide some context as to what was going on in Bavaria during this time. I say "some context" because even at 238 minutes, LUDWIG remains a meandering, unwieldy mess that requires keeping access to Wikipedia at the ready if you want to know how most of the characters relate to one another or what purpose they serve in Ludwig's orbit, because much of that is information that Visconti is simply not interested in providing.
history films that one-time fellow neo-realist Roberto Rossellini was making for Italian television around the same time. Granted, LUDWIG is much more opulent and visually stunning, with very few exteriors and almost all of the scenes shot in the actual castles and palaces that Ludwig had constructed during his reign. Even when Bavaria goes to war with Austria against Prussia, we see not a single battle that would seem to be a requirement in such a massive historical epic. Ludwig simply decides to side with Austria and is eventually told that they've lost the war. On one hand, you get what Visconti is doing: by seeing nothing whatsoever of the war, the audience is in the same mindset as Ludwig, who was utterly unconcerned with it and was completely unaffected by it win or lose. But telling the story in this manner gives the film a choppy and incomplete feel even at four hours. Even with Ludwig's interactions with Elisabeth and Wagner and his gradual retreat into proto-Howard Hughes seclusion even to those closest to him (it's also feasible that he suffered from social anxiety disorder), it's still nearly three hours before Visconti gets anything resembling dramatic momentum going, when Count Durckheim is called in for an inquiry with top-ranking Bavarian officials at the behest of the duplicitous Count von Holnstein (the closest thing LUDWIG has to an outright villain). This secret group is conspiring to have Ludwig declared insane, which would force him to abdicate and give power to his uncle Prince Luitpold (Gerard Herter), as the next in line of succession is Ludwig's schizophrenic younger brother Prince Otto (John Moulder Brown), who's already been deemed even less capable of assuming the throne than his elder sibling. This long sequence--where Durckheim angers the rebellious government officials and defiantly professes his loyalty to Ludwig, refusing to have any part in the coup--plays out in Italian, meaning it was completely absent from the US cut. Again, how could anyone watching this movie in an American cinema in 1973 have even a hint of a clue as to what was happening?
MAD DOG KILLER. Visconti's and Berger's relationship (now 72, the bisexual Berger eventually married Italian actress Francesca Guidata but still refers to Visconti as the one great love of his life) is reflected throughout the director's later years, particularly with von Aschenbach's obsession with a teenage boy in DEATH IN VENICE and in Ludwig's fixations on attractive young men like officer Hornig (Marc Porel) and actor Joseph Kainz (Folker Bohnet). He spies on another young officer skinny-dipping and is also seen in a state of depressed malaise, in a decadent hideaway surrounded by nude young men lounging about the premises (I'm guessing that scene wasn't in the PG version). Watching Ludwig's decline and fall hastened by his commitment to an unattainable artistic vision at odds with everyday practicality, LUDWIG is as much about the Bavarian king as it is about Visconti himself.
|Berger and Visconti on the set
|The 137-minute, PG-rated version of LUDWIG
opening in Toledo, OH on September 7, 1973.
It lasted one week.