LUDWIG (1973) Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Luchino Visconti
Arrow Academy

Luchino Visconti's decadent biopic of an equally decadent subject LUDWIG comes to Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Academy for the first time in English.

Ascending to the throne of Bavaria at nineteen years of age, Ludwig (Helmut Berger, THE DAMNED) has modeled himself on the mythical heroes of operas by his favorite composer Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard, THE THIRD MAN) and plans to enrich the minds of the people through monuments to great minds and famous artists. Showing very little interest in diplomacy, Ludwig instead marshals his resources towards finding Wagner who is constantly on the run from his creditors in order to become his patron and only consents to a trip to Bad Ischl to visit the monarchs when he learns that his cousin the Empress Elisabeth (Romy Schneider, WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?) will be in attendance. Ludwig has long been in love with his cousin who seems like-minded in disposition but she recognizes the duties and limitations of their position and tries to inveigle him into an engagement with distant cousin Sophie (Sonia Petrovna, THE HOUSE OF WITCHCRAFT). He spends a great amount of the kingdom's finances to stage Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" and plans to erect a theater for his future work only to be disillusioned once it is revealed that Wagner's muse Cosima Von Bulow (Silvana Mangano, CONVERSATION PIECE) – who had bilked Ludwig out of a discretionary fund ostensibly to pay off Wagner's debts – is actually his mistress and that her conductor husband (Mark Burns, A DAY AT THE BEACH) had ignored his cuckolding to maintain his position. After sending Wagner and the others on their way – while attempting to maintain the composer's friendship with an allowance and gifts – Ludwig impulsively becomes engaged to Sophie hoping to get closer to Elisabeth, only to break the arrangement and go into isolation. Emerging from his funk, he spends more of the kingdom's funds erecting three elaborate castles at Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee, and (most famously) Neuschwanstein and surrenders to excess. Behind his back, however, Count Von Holnstein (Umberto Orsini, THE ANTICHRIST) has convened an inquiry towards establishing Ludwig's mental instability – the testimony of which provides structure to the episodic narrative – to force him into abdicating the throne and replacing him with Prince Luitpold (Gérard Herter, THE BIG GUNDOWN).

Although a high-budgeted Italian/German/French co-production with a sprawling timeline, LUDWIG is actually more intimate in scope than director Luchino Visconti's previous epic triumph THE LEOPARD with many bigger events taking place entirely off-screen. That is perhaps intended to reflect the narrow perspective of the film's protagonist in the case of the Seven Weeks' War of 1866 during which he retreated to the country and claimed ignorance of it – making the abruptness of his brother Otto's (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED's John Moulder-Brown) descent into depression and madness seem as jarring to us as to Ludwig –while possible making the audience feel as deprived as the Bavaria's general public of seeing the much-talked-about and excessively expensive staging of Wagner's opera. The decline of the aristocracy – often hurried along by corrupt interests that also sacrificed or put a price on art and beauty – as a running theme in the filmography of Visconti, himself descended from Milanese nobility, and LUDWIG finds the king pitted against his own ministers; but it is ultimately about a figure who wants "to live as a free man following your instincts and your tastes without hypocrisy or lies" without recognizing the duties that come with the position that gave him the privilege of freedom. As Ludwig surrenders more and more to excess, Visconti tempers our sympathy towards him in the face of those who allowed his eccentricities so long as they kept him distracted by depicting Ludwig as flighty in his passions, politically irresponsible, and genuinely paranoid (even if they were out to get him). The gay subtexts of Visconti's earlier works worked their way closer to the surface starting with THE DAMNED, and Ludwig's initial gay panic over discovering his footman Volk going for a midnight skinny dip turns to acceptance once he realizes that Sophie does not want to marry him for ambition and he does not want to deceive her. After throwing out Volk (it is suggested that there was a relationship), he takes up with his replacement Hornig (Marc Porel, THE PSYCHIC) – who subsequently testifies during the inquiry that "nothing in his behavior was different from what everybody considered suitable behavior for a king" – becomes the patron of young actor Joseph Kainz (Folker Bohnet) who subsequently sells the letters and presents given to him by Ludwig (the former used as evidence of the king's instability), and holds orgies in his castle with his handsome footmen (among them TOP SENSATION's Maurizio Bonuglia).

While DEATH IN VENICE was a failure upon release and recognized later on as one of Visconti's masterpieces in spite of its turgid page, LUDWIG does not weave the same sort of magic but does offer plenty to savor aesthetically amidst the Panavision cinematography of Armando Nannuzzi (who lost an eye on the set of MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE) – assisted by future DPs Giuseppe Bernardini (THE OTHER HELL), Nino Cristiani (LOVE BY APPOINTMENT), Federico Del Zoppo (Tinto Brass' FALLO), and son Daniele Nannuzzi (who lensed Tinto Brass' SENSO 45 from the same source novel as Visconti's SENSO) – the costumes of Piero Tosi (THE NIGHT PORTER) assisted by future Oscar winner Gabriella Pescucci (THE NAME OF THE ROSE) and Mangano's future producer daughter Raffaella De Laurentiis (CONAN THE BARBARIAN), and sets of Mario Chiari (KING KONG). Like a handsomer, softer-edged Klaus Kinski, Berger is entertaining as he goes off the rails while Schneider puts a more cynical spin on the "Sissi" character that made her name in a trio of Ernst Marischka films in the fifties. Helmut Griem (CABARET) as Ludwig's aide-de-camp Colonel Dürckheim and Orsini play the polar opposites of characters they essayed in THE DAMNED while Porel would have a more prominent part in Visconti's final film THE INNOCENT, and Mangano would play sugar mama to Berger in CONVERSATION PIECE. Eagle-eyed viewers may spot SUSPIRIA's first victim Eve Axen in a small role.

Released theatrically in the United States and England by MGM in a shorter English-language version (with Berger, Schneider, Mangano, Brown, and Howard recorded live on set rather than post-synching there performances), LUDWIG disappeared from availability thanks partially to its length and changes made to the film's foreign versions. While an anamorphic two-disc German DVD of the five-part television version with Italian and German tracks appeared in 2001 through Kinowelt (who issued a Blu-ray edition in 2015), English-speaking viewers had to make due with a non-anamorphic 2006 British DVD from Infinity of the Italian theatrical version (which compressed the near four-hour film to a single disc and featured a couple featurettes on a second one) before Kino Lorber shaped up stateside and issued an anamorphic two-disc edition of the Italian cut in 2008.

Restored from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, Arrow Academy presents the film spread over two discs in two versions via seamless branching: the Italian theatrical presentation (238:16) and the five part Italian television version (249:11) – although there is no information supplied as to whether this Panavision production was screened on TV letterboxed or cropped – with the only difference being the opening and end credits for each episode (the end credits for the final episode are the theatrical ones versus the standard crawl on the other parts). Neither cut represents Visconti's original version which had a more non-linear structure. The Italian producer (who did not get along with Visconti) inserted roughly an hour of outtakes Visconti had removed from his three-hour cut (which presumably reflects the English version) and reordered the narrative into a more chronological arrangement. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen encode reveals more picture information than the previous transfers and shows off the authentic locations and Cinecitta recreations to great effect as well as Berger's intense close-ups.

Audio options include a full Italian LPCM 1.0 mono track in which everyone is dubbed (Berger by SWEPT AWAY's Giancarlo Giannini and Griem by THE WOMAN WITH RED BOOTS Adalberto Maria Merli) along with an English LPCM 1.0 track that reverts to Italian in several sections. The track reflects Visconti's 173 minute English cut, and it would have been nice to have the cut as another seamless branching option but the preparers discovered in recutting the track to Italian version's arrangement of scenes that there were a few scenes that were exclusive to the English cut of which there appears to no longer be any available elements to have used as a guide and for compositing that material (as illustrated in the two audio extracts in the extras section below). While the English track is preferred for the vocal performances, it is not always sonically superior with some of Berger's loud outbursts distorting at the high ends and some hiss present throughout. There are also a couple jumps in the music since cues were deployed differently on that track. Even though we do not have a full account of the differences between the English and Italian versions, the places in which the track reverts to Italian do give us an idea of how certain scenes were cut in the English version and what expository dialogue Visconti though unnecessary to the overall impact of the scenes. Optional English subtitles are available for the full Italian track, the Italian parts of the English track, as well as an SDH English track that also translates the Italian sections.

"Helmut Berger: The Mad King" (16:05) is a brand new interview with Berger (possibly shot during the same session as the one for THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY) in which he describes Visconti as his one true love and that there relationship was like a marriage (although not always positively since Visconti usually went to sleep just as Berger was going out all with his friends. The interview focuses solely on his three Visconti credits THE DAMNED, LUDWIG, and CONVERSATION PIECE and finds him giving punchy answers to the usual questions about research in character, rehearsals, shooting conditions, and the films' receptions. (when the interviewer asks about his inspiration for playing the decadent Martin in THE DAMNED, he states "I was myself"). Of LUDWIG, he reveals that he did not dub himself for the German version because he had gone onto work another film.

Ported over from the UK and German DVDs is the 1999 RAI-TV documentary "Luchino Visconti" (60:35) from filmmaker Carlo Lizanni (REQUIESCANT) covering Visconti's aristocratic upbringing in a thirteenth century Milanese castle, his erratic studies before going into horse-racing, becoming interested in cinema while in France when Coco Chanel introduced him to various filmmakers like Jean Cocteau (ORPHEUS) and Jean Renoir (THE GRAND ILLUSION) as well as artists like Picasso and Dali. He assisted Renoir on TONI and then traveled with him back to Italy to do THE STORY OF TOSCA. Their working relationship ended during World War II but Visconti joined the Resistance, shooting footage for what would become DAY OF GLORY released in 1943 but directing his feature debut with OSSESSIONE in 1943. An adaptation of the James Cain noir novel THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE transposed to the Po Valley - Giuseppe De Santis (BITTER RICE) is credited but some uncredited work was also performed by novelist Alberto Moravia (THE CONFORMIST) and Antonio Pietrangeli (I KNEW HER WELL) – the film courted controversy by focusing on crime and disenfranchisement while other more populist cinema was either escapist comedy or more overt propaganda (the film's star Massimo Girotti remarks that the tough guy role was far removed from the comedy and fantasy parts he played previously). Anna Magnani (MAMMA ROMA) was initially cast but was five months pregnant and was replaced by Clara Calamai (DEEP RED). Magnani would appear in Visconti's subsequent film BELISSIMA, and the documentary moves more quickly through his subsequent triumphs from ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (which was attacked by the conservative press), the prestige film THE LEOPARD on which Burt Lancaster (1900) was second choice to Visconti's preferred Sir Lawrence Olivier (REBECCA), followed by his "German trilogy" THE DAMNED, DEATH IN VENICE, and LUDWIG before CONVERSATION PIECE and his final film THE INNOCENT (based on the novel by Gabriele D'Annunzio but drawing upon visual research Visconti and production designer Piero Tosi had done for an abandoned Marcel Proust project). Among the contributors are Vittorio Gassman (ANIMA PERSA), Jean Marais (WHITE NIGHTS), writers d'Amico and Medioli, actress Claudia Cardinale (THE LEOPARD), composer Franco Mannino (THE INNOCENT), cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (THE STENDHAL SYNDROME), and director Franco Zefferelli (ROMEO AND JULIET). More interesting than the discussion of Visconti's films is his theatre work including works by Cocteau and Tennessee Williams as well as more controversial ones like Marcel Achard's "Adamo" which dealt with homosexuality and an adaptation of TOBACCO ROAD.

Also new to this set is "Producing LUDWIG" (14:21), an interview with German producer Dieter Geissler (SLEEPY HOLLOW) who reveals that he got involved with the project through Berger and took it to Cinerama (the German company, not the American distributor) and Paramount before finding support with Gloria-Film's Ilse Kubaschewski. He discusses the film's escalating budget, issues with the Italian hobbyist producer Ugo Santalucia (BLOOD IN THE STREETS), and how Visconti's executive producer/line producer Robert Gordon Edwards (DEATH IN VENICE) kept things together and would later work with him on THE NEVERENDING STORY. He discusses the differences between Visconti's original cut and the Italian theatrical and television version, noting that Visconti had okayed the cuts he made for the German market (which was the version other markets wanted since they found the Italian four hour version unworkable).

"Speaking with Suso Cecchi d'Amico" (48:12) is a lengthy 2001 RAI television "Ritratti d'Autore" special in which recalls getting into cinema at a young age while her father was working as artistic director at the post-war-revived Cines where she saw films in the screening room and read American screenplays that her father passed onto her from his trip to Hollywood while he was teaching literature at UC Berkeley. Her first work as a screenwriter was as one of the six credited writers on Renato Castellani's PROFESSOR, MY SON followed by Marcello Pagliero's ROMA CITTÀ LIBERA. She admits to taking anything offered at the time but finding that, while others like Moravia saw screenwriting as second-rate, she liked it and wanted to learn how to do it properly. Although there was little at the time in terms of literature on screenwriter, Castellani provided d'Amico with notes on screenwriting from Cecil B. DeMille's assistant-turned-screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson. Although she was not always credited for her work early on, she realized that what counted was that the producers knew who did what. She also recalls being asked by William Wyler to completely rewrite Benjamin Hecht's script to ROMAN HOLIDAY without the writer's approval only to be told later by Hecht that he had lent his name to several screenplays in Hollywood that were actually written by blacklisted writers. She then covers her work for Vittorio De Sica (MIRACLE IN MILAN), Mario Monicelli (CASANOVA '70), and Michelangelo Antonioni (THE GIRLFRIENDS) – who she admits to preferring as a screenwriter to a director since their THE LADY WITHOUT CAMELIAS was written to be a "cheeky comedy" – among others before getting to Visconti, primarily discussing THE LEOPARD on which she felt the director was harsh with second choice Lancaster, and CONVERSATION PIECE (following his stroke) which d'Amico and co-writer Enrico Medioli (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA) conceived to be shot entirely on set and appealed to Lancaster to help make the film possible. She also briefly touches upon Visconti's abandoned Proust project.

Also from RAI-TV "Silvana Mangano: The Scent of a Primrose" interview (31:12) which is not really a probing biography so much as a portrait of the actress through the words of various professional acquaintances from d'Amico, cousin Luigi Filippo (SEX FOR SALE), actor Lino Capolicchio (FOR LOVE ONE DIES), actress Laura Betti (TEOREMA), composer Mannino, director Tinto Brass (FLYING SAUCER), costume designer Bruna Parmesan (THE SCOPONE GAME), production designer Tosi, screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni (THE GREAT WAR), and director Lizzani among others. They cover her childhood as a dancer, her early work at Cinecitta, coming to notice in BITTER RICE, her marriage to Dino de Laurentiis and the path of her career from that point on, as well as some affectionate though not always flattering reminiscences of working with her on the set. The aforementioned English soundtrack excerpts for which there was no corresponding picture in the Italian version include a dialogue scene (1:28) and a piece of testimony from one of the servants (0:21) played over still frames. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer (3:49). Not provided for review was the collector's booklet by Peter Cowie. (Eric Cotenas)