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The second pairing of director Luchino Visconti with Austrian actor Helmet Berger was 1973's historical bio-pic, Ludwig, a film that was one of the most expensive pictures made in Europe at the time of its production. Visconti had previously worked with him on The Damned in 1971 and the two were partners/companions until the director's death in 1976 (he suffered a stroke during the making of this picture).
In this film, Berger plays King Ludwig II of Bavaria. We are first introduced to him while he is in the midst of confessing to a priest. The man of the cloth urges Ludwig to try to remain humble but Ludwig knows that his position in life will allow him to become the ultimate patron of the arts. From here, we see the director play around with the actual timeline of events in Ludwig's life. Different characters deliver very heartfelt soliloquies, offering up their thoughts on the picture's central character and providing welcome context for many of the film's events, always looking directly into the camera and therefore addressing the viewer.
As the story progresses, we meet many of the other key players from the young king's life, not the least of which is Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), a cousin who he would become romantically involved with before marrying her sister, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna). Maybe not so surprisingly (given that Visconti was openly homosexual and as mentioned, we involved with Berger when this film was being made), the movie also details Ludwig's interest in same sex relations. The film also details his relationship and eventual obsession with famed composer Richard Wager (Trevor Howard) and his wife Cosima von Bulow (Silvana Mangano). Along the way the film details his obsession with castles and the ramifications that this had on how he was perceived by the public, many of whom eventually thought their king to be quite insane.
The movie essentially follows Ludwig's story up until he passes away with Berger well made up to ensure he's able to look the part throughout. The make-up work is impressive. As Ludwig ages and his lifestyle choices catch up with him, he rightly transforms from the handsome and dashing young man he once was into a heavier, rougher looking type. It's role tailor made for the actor, whose cocky attitude and penchant for bitchiness really works in the context of the character he's tasked with playing. The supporting cast is good here too. Romy Schneider is excellent in her part and Sonia Petrovna both beautiful and enchanting in hers. Silvana Mangano is great Wagner's wife while Howard crafts his turn as the infamous composer into a truly impressive, and occasionally very sympathetic, turn for the camera.
Shot by cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi, this is a gorgeous looking film. Visconti definitely takes his time, using plenty of static shots (many of which really do go on too long) and the pacing in the film is, at times, akin to a cinematic endurance test. The fact that Visconti tends to run the film off the rails and into soap opera territory from time to time doesn't help matters much. This is, to be blunt, an insanely slow and overly long film. However, if you're ok with that, it's hard to argue with how impressive Ludwig is on a visual level. There's fantastic use of color and the fact that so much of it was shot in and around Munich and Bavaria gives it an appreciable authenticity in terms of its location photography. All of Ludwig's infamous opulence and taste for decadence is put on display for the viewer throughout the film and the castles, Neuschwanstein in particular with its massive grotto, in the film really do make quite a huge impression. This is complimented quite nicely by the use of Wagner's music throughout the film.
Note that Arrow's limited edition release contains not only the restored American theatrical cut but also a version that was recut as a five part mini-series for Italian television that runs roughly seventeen minutes longer. Oddly enough, much of the difference in the running time is made up of opening and closing credits sequences for the TV cut. There are other differences, of course, but they're fairly minor. A few bit part players add some narration here and there to presumably help with the flow of the picture and some dialogue scenes get extended here, but overall, there isn't a huge difference between the two versions. It's interesting to see them both included here, however. It's also worth noting that it doesn't look like any of the stronger content from the theatrical cut was removed for the TV version.
Arrow brings Ludwig to Blu-ray framed at 2.35.1 widescreen in an AVC encoded transfer scanned in "2K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative." Both cuts of the film are presented on two 50GB Blu-ray discs and there isn't any noticeable different in quality between the two in terms of how the transfers look. It's odd how Arrow have laid this out, but it would seem to be so that the two versions can share footage where applicable. One disc one we get the first part of the theatrical cut, running just over two hours, and the first three parts of the television version. On disc two we get the rest of the theatrical cut, running one hundred and twelve minutes, and the last two parts of the television version. The combined length of the television version is approximately two hundred and fifty five minutes versus the theatrical cut at two hundred and thirty eight minutes.
By and large, the transfer quality is excellent. There are a few scattered scenes where things look a bit soft and some shots that seem a bit grainier than others for various reasons, but generally speaking detail here is excellent as is texture and depth. Colors really pop, but never look artificially boosted while black levels are nice and strong. There's very little in the way of print damage to note, the presentation is clean and borders on immaculate, while skin tones look lifelike and natural. Grain is present as it should be but it looks fine here, never distracting you from the image while the picture retains its film-like qualities, being free of noise reduction or edge enhancement issues. Spreading the presentation across the two disc has also allowed for a strong bit rate resulting in an image free of obvious compression artifacts or macro-blocking problems.
Both cuts of the movie are given English language LPCM Mono options, though there are scenes never translated into English where Italian audio will switch over automatically along with accompanying English subtitles. There is also an Italian language option, also provided in LPCM Mono. English subtitles are provided (not just for the Italian language only scenes but for the entirety of both cuts). The film was shot with the actors speaking English and so that track does suit the picture more accurately, but both versions sound quite good. Dialogue is clean and clear, there are no balance issues or problems with hiss or distortion and the music has nice depth and range.
Not surprisingly, the extras are spread across the two discs in the set. Disc One starts off with an interview with the film's leading man entitled Helmut Berger: The Mad King. In this sixteen minute video interview the notoriously eccentric actor speaks quite openly and honestly about his time on set, his thoughts on the character that he played and his opinions on the feature itself.
Also found on Disc One is Luchino Visconti, an hour long biography that covers the director's life and times put together by Carlo Lizzani. There are a lot of great archival interview clips used here from Burt Lancaster, Francesco Rosi, Claudia Cardinale, Volker Scherliess and others as well as plenty of input from Carlo Lizzani himself, all of which goes a long way towards painting a fairly fascinating portrait of Visconti that serves not just as an interesting biography but as an appreciation of his art as well.
Also included on the first disc are some English Soundtrack Extracts that were uncovered during the restoration process and that weren't able to be properly matched up to the footage in the theatrical cut. These are quick, one runs eighty-eight seconds and the other only twenty, but it's interesting to see them here and Arrow has included some text putting the material into context. A theatrical trailer for the feature rounds out the extras.
The extras on disc two being with a fourteen minute segment entitled Producing Ludwig where Dieter Geissler talks about making the picture with its storied director and about how massive the budget for this picture was at the time. Interestingly enough, Geissler wasn't the first producer to be brought onboard, and there are some rather fascinating stories here about why that is. Up next is Speaking With Suso Cecchi d'Amico, a forty-eight minute archival interview with the screenwriter that was originally broadcast on Italian television. He speaks not only about working with Visconti but with a few other famous Italian directors. He's also talks about how he got his start in the film business, various projects that he worked on and more. Last but not least, disc two includes Silvana Mangano: The Scent Of A Primrose. This thirty-one minute another archival interview sees the actress' work celebrated in an older TV special where many of her contemporaries share some great stories about her and express their appreciation for her talents.
Menus and chapter selection are included on both discs. As this is a combo pack release, the two clear Blu-ray keepcases that the Blu-ray discs are housed in also contain DVD versions featuring identical extras. Both of those keepcases fit inside a sturdy cardboard box that also holds a booklet of liner notes by Peter Cowie. The book, which is in full color and quite nicely illustrated, also contains technical notes about the presentation and credits for both the feature and the Blu-ray presentation.
Luchino Visconti's Ludwig has its flaws to be certain but Helmet Burger is great in the titular lead role and the film really is a feast for the eyes, offering a nearly non-stop array of beautiful imagery. Arrow Academy's limited edition Blu-ray release looks and sounds great and it contains a nice array of supplements and some very impressive packaging. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.