Visions of Ludwig

Cinema’s fascination with the mad king of Bavaria
by Bilge Ebiri  posted June 4, 2009
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Ordinarily, the eccentric reign of Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), marked primarily by the monarch’s gathering insanity, would merit little more than a historical footnote. Ludwig was famously indifferent to military affairs or politics, and after a certain point in his reign mostly immersed himself in a world of elaborate make-believe. His legacy can be summed up thusly: he allowed Bavaria to be consumed by an aggressively emergent Prussian state, thus marking the unification of the German Empire; he became the primary patron of Richard Wagner, allowing the composer to finish the Ring cycle, Parsifal, and Tristan und Isolde; and he built a series of increasingly fantastical and extravagant castles, which have today become Bavaria’s main tourist attraction. But a reign humbled by history has been reclaimed by art: Ludwig figures prominently in a broad range of works, from films to musicals to poetry to comic books. His strange death is alluded to in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” His forbidden homosexuality fuels You Higuri’s dreamy and erotically charged manga Ludwig II. He figures prominently in Paul Rudnick’s Valhalla and Matmos’s song “Banquet for King Ludwig of Bavaria.”

But the greatest tributes to Ludwig II are in the realm of film. The most notable among these are two wildly diverse works that both happened to come out in 1972: Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Ludwig, Requiem for a Virgin King (newly available on DVD through Facets) and Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (which was released on DVD last year by Koch Lorber). The two films reveal two very different visions of the monarch and the symbolism of his reign—but they also provide a fascinating look at why the arts, and cinema in particular, continue to be fascinated by him.

As a cultural personage, Ludwig will always be wedded to Richard Wagner, the composer to whose works the young king was so drawn that he sent out emissaries to track him down. The ever opportunistic Wagner, whose breathtaking financial irresponsibility and revolutionary activities had made him persona non grata across much of Europe, found in the impressionable monarch both a kindred spirit obsessed with the mystical, heroic qualities of German mythology and a willing patsy. For years, Wagner bled the Bavarian state, exploiting the king’s largesse until the citizenry almost rose in revolt. As a result, Ludwig’s legacy is inseparable from that of Wagner’s music, which has become fraught with cultural contradictions as history has marched along.

A very early film depiction of Ludwig offers a telling contrast. Carl Froelich and William Wauer’s 1913 film Richard Wagner is a relatively undistinguished hagiography of the composer (Giuseppe Becce), a series of simple historical tableaux of his life. As might be expected, Ludwig (Ernst Reicher) figures prominently, as Wagner’s chief patron and his savior at a time of great financial and political hardship. There’s no hint of the king’s madness or even his infamous extravagance. Likewise, there’s little to the film’s depiction of Wagner, loaded as it is with Great Man moments. Compare that to Tony Palmer’s 1983 miniseries Wagner, in which Richard Burton plays the composer as a hopelessly vain, bitter man veering between utter despair and megalomania. When Ludwig (László Gálffi) answers Wagner’s prayers, the triumph is short-lived; the two mad visionaries soon find themselves in an endless spiral of co-dependence and recrimination.

Of course, 1913 was a period of relative innocence for German culture, with little hint of what the ensuing decades would bring. Ludwig—as a monarch, as a symbol, as a man—will be forever marked by 20th-century German history. In discussing Syberberg’s 1977 film Hitler, A Film From Germany, Susan Sontag evoked “a protean principle of evil that saturates the present and remakes the past.” Ludwig’s reign, although it began a full century before the end of World War II, has been reconfigured by the image of Hitler.

Visconti’s Ludwig marked the culmination of the director’s “German Trilogy,” following The Damned and Death in Venice. Syberberg’s Ludwig marked the beginning of his own trilogy, which would continue with Karl May and the aforementioned Hitler. Both trilogies place films about Ludwig and Nazism on either end, with a film about an artist in the middle. Ludwig is, for both filmmakers, a representation of German Romanticism, a likening the king himself would have enjoyed; he often referred to himself as Parzival and dressed up as Lohengrin, Wagner’s infamous swan knight. But Visconti and Syberberg diverge dramatically in what Ludwig—and, by extension, German Romanticism—represents for the developments of the 20th century.

A Romantic Path Not Taken: Reclaiming Ludwig

Visconti’s great theme was the way individuals get swept up in the decay of their class structures. As such, a Romantic strain can be detected through the Marxist aristocrat-turned-filmmaker’s works, often expressed through their ambiguous, conflicted stance toward social progress. His historical films like The Leopard and Senso acknowledge the muddy circumstances in which new, possibly even better, societies are born. They exist both as laments for and exorcisms of the past, offering narratives of change while indulging in exquisite, at times rhapsodic, re-creations of bygone worlds. One would expect a Visconti film about Ludwig II to overflow with similar emotional textures. But for all its glimpses of royal grandeur and its epic running time, Ludwig is perhaps the director’s coldest, most analytical film. Structured around various individuals addressing the camera and discussing the king’s history in the wake of his death, the film has the distinct atmosphere of an autopsy—right down to the striking and sudden freeze-frame of the drowned Ludwig’s body that ends it. One wonders what the real corpse under examination is here, however: Is it literally the poor, mad monarch, played by the director’s beloved protégé Helmut Berger, or the historical era that he represented? As Henry Bacon observes in his book Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay:

Because the king prefers to live for something better than historical reality, the tremendous political event that is taking place, the formation of the German Empire, is denied the sense of burning immediacy, or even of glorification…The tone is somber and reflects a total disillusionment with nationalistic fervor, with any kind of political activity, in fact…The king can be seen as a metaphor denoting the elevated but potentially sterile and destructive condition of art toward the end of the Romantic era.

’s stylistic sobriety and quiet intimacy, similar to a chamber piece, contrasts with the two films that preceded it in the German Trilogy: The Damned is an over-the-top family melodrama about the rise of Nazism that bordered on Grand Guignol. Death in Venice is a lush, stylized reverie drenched in the music of Mahler and suffused with romantic longing. The contrast with The Damned is most dramatic: both films begin with a kind of coronation—in Ludwig’s case, it’s a literal one; in The Damned, it’s a party where the new manager of the family steelworks is announced. Both films have climactic orgy sequences where beautiful, half-naked men languor in painterly, debauched repose; in The Damned, however, this is a prelude to the bloody massacre of the Night of the Long Knives. The world of The Damned gives us big emotions but small people. Most of its characters are bureaucrats, industrialists, technocrats, and opportunists—the same bourgeois functionaries that haunted the mad king of Bavaria until they forced him to give up his throne.

A lovely and melancholy scene late in the film shows the king meeting an actor he admires in the infamous Grotto of Venus, a specially built lake inside a cave that Ludwig had outfitted with real swans, an elaborate lighting system, and piped-in music. It’s hard not to think of the cinematic apparatus when reading a description of the grotto in Christopher McIntosh’s biography of Ludwig:

The grotto was also given a lake, an artificial waterfall and mechanically created waves. On the waters floated a boat shaped like a cockleshell, in which Ludwig sometimes sailed dressed as Lohengrin. In addition the grotto was equipped with a device which would produce a programmed sequence of five different lighting effects, lasting for ten minutes each and concluding with a rainbow over the painted tableau from Tannhäuser which formed the backdrop of a small stage set into the wall....The light with its changing colors was produced by twenty-four arc lamps which shone through rotating sheets of tinted glass...a Disneyland creation nearly a century ahead of its time.

In long shot, the whole thing is ridiculous and stagy. But when Visconti cuts to a close-up of the monarch, a glazed look on his face as he paddles about in his floating cockleshell, the effect works. There’s something touching about the moment. For all its kitsch silliness, the Grotto of Venus, for an instant, fulfills Ludwig’s fantasies.

As Visconti discovered while preparing for Ludwig, by the late 20th century the people of Bavaria had revived interest in their unfortunate, long-departed king as a kind of cultural antidote to Hitler. The lonely, melancholy monarch, with his love of art and his loathing of war, offered a stubborn contrast to the loud, murderous führer, with his bellowing crowds and his mechanized war machine. For Visconti, then, Ludwig becomes in part an attempt to reclaim German art and culture from the horrors with which it has been associated.

A Bridge to the Modern World: Transcending Ludwig

Where the Italian classicist saw a clear distinction between the mythical world of Romanticism and the petty, perverted world of Nazism, the German provocateur saw a throughline. Sontag wrote that “Syberberg regards Nazism as the grotesque fulfillment—and betrayal—of German Romanticism,” and the paradox sounds about right for this filmmaker whose work seems to simultaneously catalog the horrors of Nazism and find in it a sort of monstrous, mythic power.

Syberberg’s Ludwig is not a narrative of the king’s reign à la Visconti's, but an almost experimental work in which, much like the later Hitler, most of the action takes place on a stage littered with cultural artifacts, while the film utilizes rear-projection images of, among other things, Ludwig’s palaces. As befits a film that’s all about paradox, Ludwig embraces both the sublime and kitsch. (It opens with an evocation of the curse of Lola Montes, the notorious dancer and courtesan whose affair with Ludwig I helped end that earlier monarch’s reign.) But Ludwig is, for Syberberg, almost synonymous with Wagner, whose music overwhelms the film and turns it into something that encompasses theater and opera as well as cinema—a 20th-century variation on the composer’s own notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total and all-encompassing work of art.

The connection with Wagner, which in Visconti’s film only represents a fraction of the story, becomes the central theme in Syberberg’s film—perhaps because this association is one that will become relevant to the director’s larger vision. Ludwig helps give birth to Wagner, and Wagner gives birth, in his own twisted way, to Nazism: In Hitler, Syberberg offered up the striking and infamous image of the führer rising from Wagner’s grave. (Birth-in-death imagery of Wagner runs throughout the filmmaker’s work: his film of the opera Parsifal was staged on a set dominated by a replica of the composer’s death mask.)

In a sense, Syberberg turns Ludwig himself, this famously inept and disastrous monarch, into one of Wagner’s mythical heroes, and thereby the crucial bridge between German Romanticism and later German fanaticism. As Fredric Jameson argues, in “In the Destructive Element Immerse,” his essay on Syberberg:

The modernist aesthetic demands an organic community which it cannot, however, bring into being by itself but can only express. Ludwig II is, then, the name for that fleeting mirage, that optical illusion of a concrete historical possibility. He is the philosopher-king who, by virtue of a political power that resulted from a unique and unstable social and political situation, holds out, for a moment, the promise of an organic community. Later, Nazism will make this same promise.

Conventional historical wisdom sees the seeds of Nazi Germany in the emerging greater Prussian state of the late 19th century—the same one that would consume Ludwig’s Bavaria and largely rob him of his independence and power. But Syberberg reverses that historical shorthand and speculates that maybe it was to Ludwig’s reign—a rare period when the Romantic impulse was finally wedded to the political will of a national leader—that one should look for an early variation of Hitler’s delusional nightmare. Ludwig imagined a world in which he might be a reincarnation of Lohengrin. Syberberg imagines a world in which Hitler is a reincarnation—or more accurately, and dangerously, a perfection—of Ludwig.

Ludwig wanted to create a concrete world where he could lose himself inside his dreams, to find what McIntosh calls “moments when his inner world sprang into sharp reality.” The image of the aforementioned Grotto of Venus, with all its echoes of the cinematic apparatus, dominates much of Syberberg’s film (and it would reappear in Hitler as well). For Syberberg, Hitler too was a kind of ultimate filmmaker, who used Europe as his soundstage and screened rushes from the battlefield at night. 

Perhaps it wouldn’t be out of place to imagine Ludwig becoming a filmmaker had he the good fortune to be born two generations later. Where Visconti saw a sad, mad fantasist lost amid his lonely thoughts, Syberberg saw the seeds of a destructive kind of willpower. But in both cases, it seems clear that Ludwig represents more than himself, or his reign, or even German Romanticism. For these films’ portrayals of the Mad King of Bavaria reveal, ultimately, their creators’ own visions of cinema itself. 


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Courtesy Koch Lorber Films
Helmut Berger in Ludwig, directed by Luchino Visconti
Photo Gallery: Visions of Ludwig


Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).

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