Monday, Nov. 10, 2008

The Madness of King Ludwig

By David Luhrssen
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Ludwig II remains one of the 19th century’s most famous monarchs. Unlike his peers, his reputation rests neither on war nor diplomacy, repression nor reform, but on art and madness. As ruler of Bavaria, a kingdom that became an autonomous state of the German Empire during his reign, Ludwig spend a fortune supporting the composer Richard Wagner and rearing fairytale castles that probably became the model for Disneyland a century later. His legacy was the annual Wagnerain Bayreuth Festival and those fantastic castles, which have become one of Europe’s popular tourist attractions.

Ludwig was extolled by artists (French poet Paul Verlaine praised him as the ideal king) and was popular with his subjects. However, he ran afoul the power elite for his spendthrift ways, his probable sexuality (he broke his one engagement), seemingly erratic behavior and neglect of official duties. After being deposed by Bavaria’s government on grounds of insanity, Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances. The officials said that he murdered his psychiatrist and took his own life.

Acclaimed Italian director Luchino Visconti made a film about the monarch that has reemerged on DVD in its seldom-seen four-hour version. The 1972 production Ludwig (originally released as Ludwig II) is a masterful costume drama filmed on location with a fine international cast headed by Helmut Berger as the pointedly distracted king and Trevor Howard as the crafty but visionary Wagner. Many of the scenes are filmed in long or medium takes, rendering the characters as ornaments in the lavish world of Ludwig’s palaces.

Visconti’s is not among the most flattering interpretations of Ludwig’s life. A Marxist aristocrat whose ideology seemed at odds with his almost feudal private life, Visconti has more sympathy than most for the austere practicality of Ludwig’s foes yet he reduces no one to the level of caricatured hero or villain. He has been criticized for staging Ludwig’s reign as a tableau of decline into decadence, touching only lightly on important issues of art, life and politics. And yet, Ludwig can be read differently than the director probably intended as a dreamy young man whose fantasy became more fantastic with time. Ludwig held up art as the absolute truth and was obsessed with the medieval vision he glimpsed in Wagner’s operas. The castles he built and the life he tried to lead were Wagnerian in scale and splendor. Ludwig’s retreat into a private world of imagination was accompanied by a withdrawal from affairs of state.

Neglect of duty was only one of the charges made against him by his ministers, practical men with little interest in the arts and no sympathy for Ludwig’s vision. He thought the greatest gift he could give his subjects was to enrich their souls. His enemies cared more for the productivity and efficiency of those subjects. Nowadays Johnny Depp would be perfectly cast as Ludwig in any remake (there’s an idea someone should steal!). Berger gave a fine performance, endowing the king with a brooding introversion that erupts in fiery upheaval, a fey Romanticism shaded by darkness as he pulls up the draw bridges between himself and a world he finds impure, uninteresting and increasingly frightening.

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