Friday, April 7, 2017

Blu-ray debut for Luchino Visconti's less-than-masterful but still worthwhile biopic, LUDWIG

TrustMovies has now seen LUDWIG -- Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti's telling of the history, from his crowing through to his death, of the ruler known as "Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria" -- three times. The first was in 1973 during its original theatrical release, the second maybe ten years ago on DVD, and the third with the film's current Blu-ray release to home video via Arrow Academy. On initial viewing, I found the film pretty awful, despite my love for much of Visconti's work. On second viewing it seemed a bit better, and this time it appears, perhaps due to the increased length (nearly four-and-one-half-hours) richer and fuller than any previous incarnation.

One of the highlights of this new Blu-ray disc release is the hour-long documentary about Signore Visconti, shown at right, during which the late actor Vittorio Gassman talks about the director and notes that he was a master of melodrama. Indeed he was, and one of the problems with his telling of the tale of Ludwig is that Visconti foregoes most of that melodrama, which perhaps makes his feature a bit more rigorous but in the end much less compelling.

The filmmaker has, however, coaxed from Helmut Berger what is undoubtedly the finest performance this pretty-boy actor ever gave. Herr Berger is surprisingly good: His road from eccentric to full-out nut-case to sad specimen of abused royalty is played with genuine feeling and an acute sense of the specifics of aging and deterioration.

In this longer, four-and-one-half-hour version, we get some of the detail and precision that was missing from the shorter versions. These include more of the history and politics of the time and of the various relationships between characters. This current and fully restored Ludwig is a fuller, richer version of what came before.

In the supporting cast, Trevor Howard and Silvana Mangano still shine darkly as as the scheming Richard and Cosima Wagner, while Romy Schneider (above) makes princess Elizabeth as difficult and coquettish as ever. As Ludwig’s best and most trusted friend, Helmut Griem (shown at right in final photo) provides the film’s moral ballast, while John Moulder-Brown (below) makes the sweet, boyish and very sad character of Prince Otto come to fine life. 

Among the scenes you’re most likely to remember – from all the versions – will be Ludwig’s wooing of the young actor Kainz in that glorious underground grotto with the swans and that charming little love boat, and Elizabeth’s visit to Ludwig’s most famous castle in the room with all those mirrors. Visually the film is a near-constant treat, with sets and costumes as gloriously garish and/or stunning as you’ll have seen. And then there’s that hunting lodge scene with all the young men perched atop and around the limbs of the giant tree that grows in the middle of the lodge.

There are memorable moments aplenty to make the 257 minutes worthwhile, and if the film must take its place among Visconti’s lesser works, well, it is still a Visconti. From Arrow Academy/Arrow Video and released here in the USA via MVD Entertainment Group, Ludwig arrives on high-definition Blu-ray -- the 4K restoration is from the original film negative -- and standard def DVD in a four-disc set this coming Tuesday, April 11.

Special features include that hour-long doc on the director, a half-hour portrait of actress Silvana Mangano, an interview with screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, a brand new interview with Helmut Berger (the contrast between then and now is simply staggering), and the film's theatrical trailer. There are several viewing options, as well: in the full theatrical cut or as five individual parts as shown on Italian television, with an English soundtrack with optional English subtitles, and in the original Italian soundtrack with English subtitles.


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Great review. I love this new LUDWIG, being interested in the history and the cast including Schneider, Mangano and Howard. Berger is terrific in his best role, and yes the contrast between then and now .... its all an opulent treat of the type they just don't make now in ths age of CGI, and its still a Visconti film!

TrustMovies said...

Thanks for posting, Michael. So glad you agree, and from the sound of things, feel even more positively than I toward this film.