STUDIO: KOCH Lorber Films
MSRP: $39.98
RUNNING TIME: 237 Minutes

  • 30-minute documentary on actress Silvana Mangano, “The Scent of Primroses”.
  • 55-minute nterview with costume designer Piero Tosi.
  • 55-minute documentary on director Luchino Visconti.

The Pitch

19th Century King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, is in love with his cousin, whom he can never officially have. Becoming enthralled with the works of Wagner, he slowly drifts into madness, all the while building massive fairytale castles for his world of dreams.

The Humans

Directed by: Luchino Visconti.

Written by: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Enrico Medioli, Luchino Visconti.

Starring: Helmut Berger, Romy Schneider, Trevor Howard, Silvana Mangano.

The Nutshell

In 1972, acclaimed director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice) released this 4-hour biopic on the life of the Bavarian king Ludwig II, whom some called “The Mad King” due to his presumed fragile mental state. The drama starred Helmut Berger as Ludwig, with Romy Schnieder as his cousin, Elisabeth of Austria. This film was nominated for an Academy Award for its lavish costume designs, and won the David di Donatello award for Best Picture and Best Director the same year (’72).

It is presented here in its original Italian, with English subtitles.

The Lowdown

This film is filled with glorious, majestic interiors. In virtually every scene, the characters move through gilded rooms that are magnificently decorated, and is much a cast member as the actors themselves. Do not misunderstand me, the actors are truly wonderful, seemingly a great performance from everyone, but in some scenes the glory of the sets sometimes threaten to overwhelm the theater being displayed within. This is a testament to the beautiful decadence of 19th century design, as the film was able to shoot inside the actual Bavarian castles Ludwig II commissioned. It’s a testament to Visconti’s meticulous attention to historical detail that his passion piece is able to use actual locales so appropriately.

And not to be outdone, the costumes also have a major bearing on the production. Had it not been for the amazing talents of costume designer Piero Tosi, the movie might not have had the same creative impact it wound up having. It is the combination of the sets and costumes that enable an actor to immerse themselves into the world they are meant to inhabit. This is of course a major concern for costume dramas, and Ludwig takes full advantage of the genius of Tosi.

Helmut Berger is King Ludwig of Bavaria. It is his performance that anchors the film, as he completely loses himself in the role. and how could he not? With top notch talent filling nearly every position on the shoot, from director, music, co-stars, and of course costumes, it would have almost taken more talent to fail as the King. But Berger nails the conflict that was within Ludwig. He is able to convey the extreme eccentricities that caused some in his time to label him as mad, hence the nickname that he was never able to shake.

Romy Schnieder is equally brilliant as Empress Elisabeth of Austria, exhibiting the sensuousness that causes Ludwig to fall for her. It is a role she was very familiar with, having played Elisabeth in three Sissi movies from the 1950’s. While that portrayal was more adolescent and cute, here it is an adult performance which is more appropriate for a film of this magnitude.

The movie Visconti strived to make was one of historical accuracy, and in order to achieve that he had to first attack the incorrect “mad” label that has been attached to the monarch since his death in 1886. This the director was able to do, by painting him as more an extreme eccentric than an insane liege. It is a highly questionable diagnosis of mental illness by doctors of the time that caused Ludwig to be dethroned, and since that time was forever miss-labeled as mad.

Visconti understood this and was able to craft his story accordingly. He is never portrayed in the film as being crazy, but overly passionate regarding architecture and music. It is his tremendous love of the compositions of Richard Wagner that fueled his love of the arts and his attempt to recreate the fairytale world that the music of Wagner so wonderfully encouraged, which is the driving force behind his building of the numerous fantasy castles.

The director was able to withstand the urge to convey Ludwig as a simple crazy regent, and instead delve deep within the mystique and draw out the complex historical character. There was more to him than incorrect notions of insanity. As stated before, he was a strong proponent of music and architecture, and it is possible that without his insistent support of Wagner that we may never have appreciated his talent as we do now. Without Ludwig II, other composers may not have been influenced by the maestro as they were.

It is subtle things like this that Ludwig gets right, as well as the overt political and religious issues that were rampant in the court of Ludwig II. If you have a passion for historical dramas, and don’t mind 4 hours of subtitled excellence, then surely this 2-disc set is for you. You will not be disappointed.

The Package

This set is fairly loaded. The two documentaries concern the director and co-star respectively, and are rather well done. While also subtitled like the film, they are still a vital addition to the collection, as they give an in depth view into how both approached their lives and careers. While not solely about Ludwig, both cover it extensively and to the degree in which these two affected that production.

The only other extra is a 55 minute interview with costume designer Piero Tosi, who was nominated for an Oscar for this picture. He spends the entire time discussing his long, storied career, and it is an excellent feature.

Overall this is a great buy for history lovers, if you can get it cheaper than the $40 retail. Ludwig is a lavish visual masterpiece that tends to drag in many places, but is still engaging enough to warrant the time you will spend with it. At 4 hours long, it is recommended only for those who know about “The Mad King”, or have a thing for historical dramas (like me). Otherwise the average person will be lost by the first hour, and asleep therein after.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a well-made, excellent piece of Italian cinema.

9 out of 10