Ludwig (1973) Blu-ray Review: The Historical Epic Wherein Nothing Really Happens

I would only be slightly remiss were I to openly admit history was never my strongest subject in school. Truth be told, when I wasn’t having assorted slurs shouted at me in the hallways or eluding those who wanted to stuff me in a locker, I was safe in my room at home watching movies most people had forgotten about. And the truly beautiful part about those otherwise terrible years was my ability to sit through even the longest, most boring film known to man and still be able to focus on it. Sadly, enduring great strides of monotony is not all it once was, as I recently concluded after all of the high school flashbacks flooded my memory whilst watching Luchino Vicsonti’s Ludwig.

To the individuals and generations who have inadvertently followed in my footsteps due to their own unique learning disabilities or lack of adequate school funding, Ludwig is not so much based on fact as it is various legends and rumors surrounding King Ludwig II of Bavaria. (“Ja, in Bavaria, where the mountains stick out of the ground!”) The bulk of these beliefs have simply become part of “unofficial” history ‒ much in the same way Ludwig II himself has since become known as the country’s infamous “Mad King” ‒ although said pieces seem to fit the puzzle of Europe’s gloriously enigmatic human jigsaw to everyone except to people who were perhaps raised in glass houses.

I refer to, of course, Ludwig’s repressed homosexuality. Whereas we may live in a slightly more relaxed era, one where movies featuring openly gay protagonists is perfectly normal, a four-hour Italian epic from the early ’70s was the sort of thing which required some delicate handling. And so, Visconti’s jaw-droppingly dull vision just sort of plays out like a 19th Century precursor to Clint Eastwood’s somewhat similarly-underscored biopic J. Edgar, only less subtle and more boring. If you’re in this one for hot man-on-man action, you’ll be very disappointed, as it takes a full two hours just to see the Mad King kiss a feller. And it’s a mostly silhouetted moment at that.

In fact, that particular moment reminded my dysfunctional brain of the “Acting Out” episode of Will & Grace, where everyone was excited about the first gay kissing scene on TV, only to become outraged when the camera pans away. But enough about the sub-subject which seems to have been the only reason Visconti made the picture: let’s focus on the characters themselves. First off is the Mad King himself, as portrayed by the equally mad Helmut Berger ‒ who just happened to be Visconti’s partner at the time. Brilliantly camping it up like only Berger could do, the award-winning Austrian actor is one of the few to seem wholly committed to the story here.

Alas, Berger isn’t the most interesting character to be found in Bavaria. (“Ja, in Bavaria, where the trees are made of wood!”) Rather, that honor goes to a half-bored Trevor Howard, who plays German composer Richard Wagner ‒ whom our eponymous king worships with the deepest of feelings for. Wagner himself, meanwhile, is portrayed as a philandering cad who exploits Ludwig’s access to the royal reserves. That is, when Ludwig isn’t working hard to deplete them on his own, as he notoriously spent every Gulden in the treasury on ginormous castles; lavish acts of self-indulgence which would later earn him a nice little room with rubber wallpaper.

Sadly, that is pretty much every significant plot point Ludwig has to offer right there. Instead, we just sit there and watch helplessly ‒ our jaws ajar from a noticeable lack of definable substance overall ‒ as four hours pass by, taking more than that from our own individual age reserves in the process. The movie does pick up occasionally, particularly when the lovely Romy Schneider shows up. Reprising her role as Empress Elisabeth of Austria from a trilogy of historical epics from the mid ’50s, Schneider, in actuality, hated her character in the previous films part, and agreed to do it for her friend Luchiano Visconti if she could play the part in a more serious, cynical fashion.

Indeed, Schneider is the closest thing we get to a saving grace in Ludwig. Another notable exception ‒ even if he doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot to do ‒ is German actor Gert Fröbe, better known to Americans as Goldfinger, who sports an Amish-style beard (or, a “Goldbeard”, if you will) here as the priest who tries to guide the Mad King of Bavaria. (“Ja, in Bavaria, where the sheep seldom wear spectacles!”) Other actors in this opera-like final installment from Visconti’s “German phase trilogy” (as preceded by The Damned in 1969, and 1971’s Death in Venice) include Silvana Mangano, Helmut Griem, Umberto Orsini, Mark Burns, and doomed Euro hunk Marc Porel.

Though Ludwig itself may have failed to meet any of my own expectations (not that I had any in the first place, mind you), I cannot falter in my utter amazement towards Arrow Academy for their amazing efforts with this release. Housed in an exceptionally handsome box set, the four-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo set not only presents us with a beautifully restored version of the original Italian theatrical cut of the film (the movie received various edits abroad), but also a five-part (widescreen) Italian television mini-series presentation from the early ’80s. Each version of the feature is spread out over two discs, with a choice of Italian or English audio available in LPCM Mono.

The English audio was culled from a soundtrack only of the US cut, which ran somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours. As there was no visual print to reference, and since the movie was edited together differently for its American release, there are many moments where the soundtrack switches over to Italian (often with mismatched music cues, as there was really nothing anyone could do about that), as those scenes were cut out for the U.S. premiere. For these moments, English subtitles will pop up if you have the audio set to English. Two additional English subtitle options ‒ one for the Italian audio, and a full track for the English/Italian audio ‒ are also available.

Disc One special features for this extended yarn from the history books of Bavaria (“Ja, in Bavaria, and not in Venezuela!”) include a recent interview with Helmut Berger, an hour-long television biographical documentary on Luchiano Visconti by Carlo Lizzani, two excerpts from the English-language print which Arrow Academics were unable to sync up (as the scenes they hailed from were only featured in the US version), and the original theatrical trailer. Disc Two extras include a new interview with producer Dieter Geissler, and older pieces about screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico and actress Silvana Mangano.

Wrapping up this aforementioned handsome box set from Arrow Academy is a hefty-sized booklet which is chockful of essays, production notes, interviews, photographs, and liner notes by Peter Cowie. All in full color, to boot. If you find yourself not too terribly interested in Ludwig itself, much like I was ‒ to wit I have inserted random, slightly obscured Monty Python references throughout this article in an effort to keep myself interested in even writing about it ‒ than this booklet may prove to be your salvation. Frankly, I find the history of the production and its various releases to be more interesting than the film itself, but I also realize Ludwig has its audience.

Granted, just like in high school, I am obviously not a part of this crowd, either and my unintentional apathy is utterly unswayed by the fact poor Luchiano Visconti suffered a stroke during the making of this surely challenging-to-film epic), but those of you find themselves to be Ludwig curious (or maybe you’re just a collectable box set lover, wherein this’ll surely look good next to that double feature Japanese import DVD set of Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms with the giant ant miniatures) will no doubt be beside yourselves over this much-anticipated and undeniably impressive release. Other that that, I’m afraid I will only recommend Ludwig to established fans only.

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Luigi Bastardo

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