Luchino Visconti's 1972 film Ludwig is an example of a biopic done as an epic, a grand and opulent study of the life of the 19th-century "mad kind of Bavaria," Ludwig II. A member of the Italian aristocracy himself, Visconti stood apart from his filmmaking contemporaries and their embracing of Neorealism, instead crafting meticulous studies of the various classes that were almost more realistic in their painstaking attention to detail but at the same time created a feeling of another world. This feeling of disconnection went hand in hand with the themes of many of the director's pictures, where his characters were often at odds with the world around them and seemed to walk rarefied streets that had little in common with the spaces they connected. Thus, we get Marcello Mastroianni's lonely romantic traversing bridges and canals in Le notti bianche or Burt Lancaster's patriarch in The Leopard, a symbol of a passing age.
Lancaster's aging nobleman actually has a lot in common with Ludwig II. As played by Helmut Berger (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), this monarch has little connection to the kingdom he rules. Through most of Visconti's four-hour portrait, King Ludwig is indoors, locked away in his opulent estates. He is not part of the lives that he governs, but instead is informed of what is going on by various aides and courtly officials. A dreamy young man crowned in his teens, it is assumed that Ludwig is unschooled in all things, and much of the first half of the picture is about the King's education in matters of love, war, and sex. By the end, Ludwig begins to tire of these conspiracies, even tossing out the prostitute his counsel hires to teach him how to be a lover before she can earn her money.
Ludwig's one respite is sneaking out at night and riding his horse under the stars. This is where onlookers begin to suspect him of madness, as apparently this quest for solitude was considered strange behavior back then. He finds some comfort in the fact that his cousin Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria (Romy Schneider, who also played the Empress at a younger age in the Sissi trilogy fifteen years earlier), engages in similar activity, and she joins him for a few moonlight rides. Of course, he has also fallen in love with this independent woman, who seems to enjoy the freedom he does not, and his pining for her postpones any serious hunt for a wife and causes further rumblings of his state of mind. So, too, does his harboring of Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter [review]), the composer, whose music Ludwig adores but whose personal life and money grubbing ends up being an embarrassment to his sponsor.
Like most of Visconti's dramas, Ludwig has a leisurely storytelling style that adds to the feeling of serious contemplation the film requires and is also successful in creating that sense of another world that is essential to understanding his outsider characters. The director is not hurried in his portrayals, but rather able to document the ennui with a pacing that is akin to real time, the languorous dialogue scenes showing a lack of urgency in Ludwig's life. Even discussions of war seem protracted and separate, with Ludwig having no idea what the frontlines are like and not understanding why his younger brother, Prince Otto (John Moulder-Brown), can't merely abandon his duty.
In the case of Ludwig, the longer running time also allows Visconti to avoid the compression that hobbles so many biography movies. There is no rush to cram everything in, Visconti can take his time. The first half of the picture begins with Ludwig's coronation and ends in the midst of his engagement to Tsarina Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), whom Elisabeth has chosen for the King. The second half looks at Ludwig's later years and his being deposed. Visconti also cuts interviews with members of Ludwig's cabinet into the action, with the noblemen talking directly to the camera to explain some of the interpretations of the King's behavior and the scandals that dogged him. It's not a device that Visconti labors over, but it certainly prefigures the fake documentary style that would become popular decades later.
Of course, that longer running time can be a fault as much as it is a virtue, and the second half of the film does drag, particularly in its first hour when Ludwig disappears into his obsessions and instead of trying to break free into the outer world, locks himself away from it. The King continues to pursue a love of the performing arts, including inviting an actor he admires (Folker Bohnet) back to his home and trying to make him his personal performer the way he wanted Wagner to be his personal composer. Ludwig also builds a continuous string of ever-opulent palaces, one after the other, most of them left to sit idle as soon as he moves on to the next. (Visconti shows these in exacting detail when Elisabeth takes a tour of them. These scenes were shot on location, but special praise should also be reserved for production designers Mario Chiari and Mario Scisci.) In his exile, he cavorts with young boys and lets his health deteriorate. By the end, he is a pale shell of himself, his teeth rotting along with his brain. Helmut Berger, who bares both a passing physical resemblance to Alain Delon as well as the actor's icy demeanor, really distinguishes himself in these scenes, imbuing his performance with a brittle incredulity that is both childish and sad. Throughout Ludwig, he comes off as a monarch that is more tolerated than followed, which contrasts well with Schneider's portrayal of Empress Elisabeth as a woman always in charge. Her manipulation and domination of her troubled cousin is quite impressive.
In this period, Ludwig is not at all concerned with governance, which eventually attracts the notice of the ruling officials. At this juncture, the "documentary" interviews meld with the narrative as we realize that they are part of an inquiry into Ludwig's mental health. The investigation leads to a political coup, and here the film begins to pick up again as the various conspiracies to remove the King from his throne and to protect him intersect. Multiple doctors diagnose Ludwig as paranoid, so imagine what it must be like when, shortly after being imprisoned/hospitalized, he discovers the peepholes in the wall where his enemies spy on him--he may be paranoid, but they have really come after him! In this last act, the early hints of Ludwig's eccentricities being calculated and voluntary start to have some bearing. (One aide, Count Duerckheim, played by Helmut Griem, even says as much.) Ludwig may also be truly mad, it's an unanswerable question, and one that Visconti isn't too rigorous about pursuing; rather, as King Ludwig II accepts his fate, he joins other Visconti protagonists in acknowledging the passing of his time on top. The King seems to realize that it's over for him, that the world can no longer tolerate his passions, and that it will continue to turn without him. (He would be pleased to know that Wagner's music still endures, I am sure.)
A film with the scope and patience of Ludwig certainly requires as much patience from its audience, but there are few directors that can guide his viewers through the grandeur of this kind of lifestyle the way Luchino Visconti can. While other filmmakers would be drawn to monarchs who distinguished themselves in battle or effected greater social change, Visconti is more fascinated with a ruler who felt trapped by his position and yearned to be a part of the larger tableau of music and art. For him, Ludwig was more important for how his heart was broken by beauty than for how he lost his country. With sumptuous set designs and well-tailored performances from the distinguished cast, Ludwig takes us behind palace walls to view the fragility that is often secured inside them.