In Ludwig, Luchino Visconti Saw His Dreamy Royal Reflection

Movies Features Luchino Visconti
In Ludwig, Luchino Visconti Saw His Dreamy Royal Reflection

There is a type of poster on Twitter that has become known as a “statue avi”—someone with alt-right “trad” tendencies who has a marble statue as a profile picture. On March 1st, one of the larger accounts, @Culture_Crit posted an image of Neuschwanstein Castle with the text “Why did human beings stop building things like this?” If the post was bait, it worked, with responses like “they didn’t; this was the ultimate 19th century mcmansion” (@cszabla), “they built one of these in orlando not too long ago” (@Liamjsm) and “my dude has never been to disney world” (@Ian_Gay_briel). Most importantly: “They stopped letting gay guys be king” (@gaykatemoss). This fairy tale castle was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria from 1869 until his deposition and suicide in 1886, and its neo-medieval stylings have cemented it as a symbol of a mythic, imagined past for everyone from Adolf Hitler to Walt Disney. It was here—at the base of the Bavarian Alps where Italian master Luchino Visconti was location scouting for a film documenting the decline of an industrial family through the psychological decay and insanity of Nazi Germany—that he got the spark to make a film about the Mad King of Bavaria.

The Ludwig that audiences met at its March 1973 premiere was a scaled-back version of what Visconti had initially put together. After suffering a stroke in 1972 before editing the film, Visconti’s mind was as sharp as ever, but he had to relearn many of his motor skills and stay under the watchful eyes of doctors, friends and close family members. His original, sprawling four-hour cut was long enough that he considered releasing it as two programs. When the studio got wind of this, they demanded at least an hour be cut, and Visconti, a usually steadfast artist, was not in fighting shape. He reluctantly gave in. The resulting Ludwig was strung together with flashbacks, flashforwards, memories and even possibly total imaginations. After Visconti’s death, the cuts got even worse: A 137-minute version took out the framing device of ministers presenting their “objective” view on Ludwig, and structured the film more linearly. But in the 50 years since its release, a cut of the film more or less as Visconti intended has been carefully restored and is the version widely in circulation today. While the varying versions have slowed the critical consensus on Ludwig compared to Visconti’s other masterpieces, the film has only become more prescient in time, both in its political and mythological ambivalence, and its tragic protagonist’s diverging similarities with the author of the film.

Luchino was born in 1906 to the noble Visconti family, whose heirs had ruled Milan and much of present day Lombardy for centuries. He had a keen interest in art and literature from an early age, but his first passion was breeding and training horses. An expensive and high-class profession it, in many ways, with its gentle and considered coaxing of the natural world towards precise results, naturally lends itself to an eventual filmmaker’s talents. While fascist Italy was a comfortable place for a well-off aristocrat, its artistic limitations and censorship pushed him towards Paris’ intellectual scene. Outside the bounds of the staunchly conservative Italy, he had his first, albeit discreet, gay relationship with the experimental fashion photographer Horst P. Horst, who was instrumental in Visconti beginning to understand his sexuality and in turning him away from fascism (he would later become a card-carrying communist during the war and be arrested by fascists in Rome for partisan activities, at one point sentenced to death by firing squad and saved at the last minute). 

Visconti would soon get in the favors of Coco Chanel, who introduced him to the artistic elites of the day—most importantly, his would-be mentor and avid supporter of the left-wing popular front Jean Renoir, who’d just completed the neorealism-foreshadowing Toni. Visconti would work as an assistant detailing costumes on Renoir’s A Day in the Country, a small film that would become the stuff of legend after it was never fully completed. Renoir’s use of locational authenticity stuck with Visconti, that forefather of neorealism, although he was never too interested in critical classification. In fact, when his films began to shift towards the historic and operatic, starting with his first Risorgimento melodrama Senso, critics found a new word to describe him: Neoclassicist. Whatever the critics thought of the texts themselves, the behind-the-camera work stayed the same, and even as his films moved away from backwater alleyways and into grand palaces, Visconti was always interested in reality, pursuing it through thoroughly researched, detail-rich mise en scène.

Ludwig is perhaps Visconti’s most triumphant work of recreation. The first real sequence of the film is 18-year-old Ludwig’s coronation. We’re greeted by one of the most detailed and drab displays of regalia in all of Visconti’s filmography—decorated ministers shaking hands, displays of imperial gems, shuffling clergymen in all their garb. We first see Ludwig behind a closed door, preparing for the audience by chugging champagne. The camera is behind his head, in partial profile. When we finally see his face, it is that of Helmut Berger, bisexual bohemian star and Luchino Visconti’s last lover, and he has been meticulously transformed into the image of the boyish Mad, Virgin, Fairy Tale King. Like all of the set-dressing in the real castles and manors of Visconti’s declining aristocrats, the actors had to be perfect. When Ludwig is finally ready to be coronated, and the party progresses as if they are to be in front of thousands of curious commoners, the scene fades out. We instead move to the King’s office and his disinterest in state affairs—beyond his use of police to track down famed and controversial composer Richard Wagner and invite him to Bavaria.

Not unlike Visconti, as a young boy Ludwig took an interest in art rather than the preliminaries to statecraft more appropriate for a would-be king. His first real effort as ruler was to bring his hero, Wagner, to Bavaria. Ludwig saw Wagner’s Lohengrin as a teenager, its soaring romantic compositions and mythic Germanic storytelling forever changing his life, leading to a life-long obsession with an archaic mystique rather than the tumultuous reality of his modern state. Ludwig offers Wagner a dream come true: Not only payment of his debts, but also the building of massive, grand new opera houses for his coming works. It would finally be a chance for Wagner to stage Tristan and Isolde and compose his legendary Ring Cycle. Played by Trevor Howard, Wagner’s grand aspirations and alienating personality mirror Ludwig—where Wagner makes his music to rouse and inspire, Ludwig uses Wagner’s work to try to fit his perception to his reality. In the simplest way, Wagner is the musician and Ludwig is the listener. Ludwig is genuinely shaped by the world of the music; it, as Wagner intends, inspires him. It is so overpowering, in fact, that it has to be more real than what is real—Wagner’s myths appearing more solid than Ludwig’s subjects or the political powers keeping him in place.

Near the end of Ludwig, when the king is about to be deposed by his ministers, one of his most faithful advisors Dürckheim (Helmut Griem) tells him he should try to rally the people in his favor and save his monarchy. In fact, the real Ludwig II was popular amongst the people while being seen as a nuisance and financial risk to the more modern realpolitik types that were dominating the government. These people are nowhere to be seen high up in Ludwig’s half-finished dream castle, nor are they anywhere else in the film. His life is completely separated from “the people.” Visconti is under no illusion as to where the dramas of bourgeois life lay. And there’s no illusion that the ministers deposing Ludwig, whose testimony presents a cold look at the passionate king, are interested in anything besides their own office dramas.

If any political structure comes as a result of imagination, supplanting a series of rules and norms onto reality that are used to build and govern upon it, then Ludwig is living in a dream inside a dream. At a time when politics was shifting away from the divine right of kings into theories of democracy and liberalism, the old imagination of the arbitrary rule of dynasties gives Ludwig the space to retreat into the Wagnerian dream-opera, where errant knights are sent on missions from God and the redemptive power of love can save all. It is a dream that Ludwig increasingly retreats into anytime his reality proves to contradict these ideals. 

The most surreal moment in Ludwig is early and stylistically jarring. Cutting away from another rococo interior, we see Romy Schneider’s face bathed in teal and pink lights, carouseling on a white horse—it is like something from a different movie entirely. It cuts back to Ludwig, revealing the location to be in a tent and the dreamlike image as being seen from his perspective. There are tinted electric lights that Schneider is winding around, blurring the subjectivity of Ludwig with the objectivity of the strange and extravagant world he inhabits. The palaces of the film are all historical, shot on location, and with as much natural light as was possible at the time. The authenticity Visconti strives for, in the case of Ludwig II is, by design, that of legend. 

By the time Schneider was in Ludwig she, like Berger, had become an international cinematic sex symbol, but Visconti’s casting harkens back to her earlier days by reprising her breakout role as the carefree Bavarian princess from the Sissi films. While Ludwig is falling for his cousin Elisabeth through their nighttime escapades, the impossibility of their romance becomes increasingly clear, as Ludwig’s grandiose ideas of monarchy seem more grounded in opera than they do in a reality that Elisabeth is all too aware of—she knows their only job is to parade around. Elisabeth encourages him to pursue a relationship with her confidant Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), with whom he is at first enraptured but, inexplicably to all the onlookers and Sophie herself, he breaks off his engagement. The audience knows more, of course. 

On one of his night walks, Ludwig notices a servant’s clothes by the lake. A single bit of golden light comes through the trees behind Ludwig as he sees a young man naked in the lake, bathed in the purple dusk. He is distraught by what this might awaken in him, and he has the servant dismissed. Soon after, Ludwig is explaining his broken engagement to a priest, who in turn is distressed at the king’s inability to complete one of the most basic functions of the monarchy: Producing an heir. He suspects what so many around the kingdom are starting to, and has him take confession, leading to one of the punchiest scenes in the entire film. Ludwig intercuts the confession and an ambiguous point in time, a point that is, if not a moment of total imagination, a psychosis caused by desire, where Ludwig enters one of his male servant’s quarters and shares a kiss. It is a desire truly impossible to realize in Ludwig’s position, but if that is a desire completely forbidden by his role as a monarch, then he must pursue another.

Ostensibly, Ludwig II is remembered today as a builder of fairy tale castles. It sparked Ludwig and remains one of Germany’s biggest tourism drivers. Ludwig built literal walls to hide in his fantasy world, away from others, away from a world his dreams could not be realized in. When we see Ludwig again after the confession, an ambiguous amount of time has passed, and he is shuttered in a dark room looking at magic lantern images of clouds across the ceiling and a hanging display of the moon. As time goes on, he stops retrofitting the old palaces and builds new ones—most famously Neuschwanstein, or New Swan Stone, named for the Swan Knight in Lohengrin

High on an alpine outcropping, it was not built for fortification but for its view. While built with modern techniques, the neo-medieval building was constructed like a Wagner opera, with its evocations of a mythic past synthesized into a stunning, romantic work of art. And like the dream within a dream that Ludwig lived in, the castle itself has continuously unfolding layers of reality and stagecraft. Perhaps its most striking feature is not its monumental exterior, but the man-made cave that extends out of the living room. The Venus Grotto was designed to reference a scene in another of Ludwig’s childhood Wagnerian favorites, Tannhäuser, and is complete with fake stalactites, wave maker and one of the first generator-powered lights in Germany. Here Ludwig greets famed actor Joseph Kainz, as the pale king crosses the grotto soaked in baby-blue light. He is looking more sickly than youthful at this point; he’s developed a scraggly beard and his love for sweets has started to rot his teeth. Still, his tired eyes look upon Kainz with a nervous desire as the light turns a deep pink—his electric show exteriorizing his interior life as if the world truly was a stage built for him, by him. 

It is not hard to see how if Visconti had been born 100 years earlier, he may not have been so different from Ludwig. Trapped by dynastic responsibilities, unable to realize forbidden desires and driven in loneliness towards trying to realize a world from fantasy that has never and could never exist. When Kainz is about to meet Ludwig for dinner, a servant explains that Ludwig did not bring him there to meet Kainz the actor, but to have his heroes Diderot or Romeo right before him. Kainz, too, is to deliver on the promise of illusion above all else. The reality of illusion can only be maintained as long as everyone around them will play along, until a group of suited ministers arrive with documents warranting deposition. Ludwig is a deeply tragic figure in Visconti’s eyes. He is not unlike a filmmaker shaping the world to his desires, completely doomed for doing so. Visconti, however, understood that this world doesn’t hold up when the cameras stop rolling.

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Portland, OR, he got a BA in film from Montana State University, and after working in politics for a time relocated to Baltimore. He spends his days working behind bar, endlessly editing old projects, researching new ones, and occasionally putting out writing. Words can usually be found at Frameland, Splice Today, his newsletter CompCin for longer-form writing, and Twitter for things that are barely written at all.

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