The role of Bavarian king Ludwig II is a gift for any film actor. With lots of solo screen time you can really let loose with the anguished soliloquies and tempestuous mad scenes. You also get to show your range as you age up from the beautiful young king to the bloated Ludwig of later years (unless you get someone else in). There’s some pretty fancy scenery to chew as you wander distractedly through sumptuous reception rooms to a Wagner soundtrack, pausing for a bit of fruity eye contact with the help before succumbing to a violent death. The exact circumstances of that last scene (which occurred on this day in 1886) are still unknown so you can play it any way you like. Really, go nuts.
Ludwig is back at the end of this year in a new German production, a hundred years since his first film appearance, more or less. Here are ten milestones of the Bavarian king’s cinematic century:
Richard Wagner (1913)
Regarded as the first feature-length bio-pic, Richard Wagner was made to mark the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. We know how the Nazis later appropriated his music, but the fate of two figures associated with the film is also illuminating: Jewish actor Ernst Reicher, who played Ludwig, was forced to emigrate in 1933, while director Carl Froelich, who also made the first German sound film Die Nacht gehört uns, would end up as the Nazis’ head of film.
Das Schweigen am Starnbergersee (1920)
In the first film centred on Ludwig, the king was played by Martin Wilhelm (young) and Ferdinand Bonn (old). The title (“The silence on Starnbergersee”) alludes to the scene of Ludwig’s mysterious death, dramatically depicted above. The following year director Rolf Raffé made a film about Ludwig’s cousin Sissi, which featured the Austrian Empress’s niece and confidant, Countess Larisch, as herself.
Ein königlicher Sonderling (1922)
“A royal eccentric” in English, this was an Austrian production, with the king played by the wonderfully named yet not at all Scandinavian Olaf Fjord. Director Otto Kreisler made his last film in 1925 which was also, incidentally, Anita Berber‘s last film.
Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern. Schicksal eines unglücklichen Menschen (1930)
A late silent film, “Ludwig the Second, King of Bavaria. Fate of an unfortunate man” was the translated title of this depiction whose script closely followed the king’s life. A little too closely, it seems; it was banned outright in Bavaria and only seen in a mangled, censored version elsewhere in Germany. The film features Max Schreck who terrified a generation in Nosferatu, while Wilhelm Dieterle directed and starred, later enjoying a successful Hollywood career in both those capacities.
Ludwig II. – Glanz und Ende eines Königs (1955)
The first Ludwig for a quarter-century was subtitled “glory and end of a king” and became the most successful German film of 1955, the same year which brought the first of three films presenting an idealised version of Ludwig’s cousin, Sissi. The script for Helmut Käutner’s film was submitted to surviving members of the Wittelsbach dynasty in exchange for permission to film in private locations. O.W. Fischer was the king and as for his even madder brother Otto…hmmm…a German post-war actor specialising in ostentatious mania? It could only be Klaus Kinski.
Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972)
This “requiem for a virgin king” was directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and starred Harry Baer who penned a biography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder as well as appearing in a number of his fims. The divine Ingrid Caven, another long-time Fassbinder collaborator, was also on board. This wasn’t a conventional bio-pic by any means, but a stylised collision of history and fiction. Syberberg returned to Ludwig the following year for a television programme which looked at the king’s palaces through the eyes of the court cook.
Syberberg’s ambitious Requiem was poorly timed, coming out the same year as the pinnacle of Ludovican cinema. Visconti’s vast four-hour study is exhaustive and exhausting, though shorter, unsympathetically cut versions have been released over the years. It wasn’t universally admired, The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby calling it “opera buffa that doesn’t know it” with “an air of self-importance that it doesn’t deserve”. Ludwig is played by Visconti’s then lover Helmut Berger while Romy Schneider is his cousin Sissi, successfully exorcising her previous portrayals of the empress.
Hungarian actor Lászlo Gálffi played Wagner’s royal patron, but really, who’s going to remember him in a Luvvie Olympics which included John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and – as the composer himself – Richard Burton? Feast on the scenery, because the cast certainly did! Wagner was supposed to be a feature film but as the running time swelled to Ring-like proportions it was divided into episodes for television broadcast.
Ludwig 1881 (1992)
Just as Romy Schneider relished the opportunity to deconstruct Sissi in Visconti’s Ludwig, Helmut Berger unfolded without Visconti’s domineering presence in this rich, contemplative film. It depicts Ludwig’s journey through Switzerland in the company of actor Josef Kainz, who plays the king’s favourite parts from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell in historic locations. Ludwig 1881 benefits from concentrating on a limited time span rather than the whole of the king’s life.
Ludwig II. (2012)
Newcomer Sabin Tambrea is the titular king and Sebastian Schipper his older self in this film due out after Christmas. It’s been shot on location in the king’s fanciful palaces, and promises to highlight the young monarch’s cultural sophistication and forward-thinking ideals with direction by Marie Noelle and Peter Sehr, who was responsible for a 1993 study of Kaspar Hauser.