Most people are familiar with Milos Forman’s powerful work Amadeus, which explored the friendship and eventual rivalry of Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Boatloads of awards, fantastic setpieces, amazing costumes and performances, and fame in the form of pop culture references are all associated with this movie. And while I love Amadeus, and love to pop it in now and then it is not my favorite biopic of a Classical musician.
That honor belongs to 1994’s Immortal Beloved.
It’s become de rigueur for award-winning biopics to explore the difficult, tumultuous lives and mental states of artists, and Immortal Beloved is one of the great examples of this. (Honestly, it’s more shocking to find a biopic about an artist who isn’t batshit crazy and emotionally abusive. For a fun experiment, watch the biopic Dark Star on H.R. Giger and have your mind blown by now normal and pleasant he is. He has a healthy long-term relationship! His friends hang out at his house all the time! This from the man who gave us the Birth Machine!) But I digress. We were speaking of Beethoven.
First, some background.
After the real Ludwig Van Beethoven died, his personal secretary, Anton Schindler, found a letter in his things addressed to ‘Immortal Beloved.’ All who knew Beethoven personally were struck by the kind, gentle words of the letter, as he was known to be irascible and bad-tempered. The identity of this Immortal Beloved has been contested among Beethoven scholars for over a hundred years, and there are many theories, but no solid answer to the mystery.
Filmmaker Bernard Rose studied the letter and became fascinated with Beethoven. Enchanted by the mystery as well as the musician’s turbulent life, he wrote the script as a suggestion for what might have been. Like any biopic, it takes some pretty big liberties with the truth, but the resulting movie is such a moving, visceral experience that he can be forgiven. Fun fact – before he directed Immortal Beloved, Rose directed Candyman. YOU READ THAT RIGHT. Some day I’ll be drunk enough to do a post comparing the two, as they are both explorations of the lives (or afterlives) of complicated artists, but today is not that day. I’m trying to cut back.
Gary Oldman* plays Beethoven and it’s one of his best roles. Every gesture is powerful and riveting, as befits a composer of Beethoven’s range. Yet between the storms and calms are plaintive moments showing Beethoven’s struggle to express himself to others. He visits a grieving mother, one of his oldest and dearest friends,to show her the piece he’s composed to mourn her dead child. He plays piano and she, finding an outlet for her grief, accompanies him on her viola.
The film’s events are told out of order, beginning with an ancient Beethoven dying in his bed, and moving to the now-famous funeral that Vienna threw him. Crowds in black throng the streets and mob his elegant cortege as the horses make their way to the cemetery. While settling the maestro’s affairs, Schindler (played to knotted-cravat perfection by Jeroen Krabbe) discovers a new will and testament that leaves he entirety of Beethoven’s considerable estate to his ‘Immortal Beloved.’ As I mentioned, nobody who knew him could believe him capable of writing or feeling such tenderness toward another human being. Schindler sets out to solve the mystery, intent on performing this last duty to a man that he feels he failed in life.
Schindler speaks to some of Beethoven’s former mistresses, lovers, and family. He begins assembling a complex picture of Beethoven’s personal life and relationships, all told in flashbacks.
Valeria Golina plays Giulietta Guicciardi, a young noblewoman madly in love with Beethoven but whose father doesn’t allow her to marry the revolutionary and moody composer. Her rockstar picture of Beethoven is tinged with hero worship, and her discovery of his deafness only spurs her fascination with him. Alas, she has to marry a count in order to secure a fortune for her family.
Johanna Van Beethoven, Beethoven’s former sister-in-law, views him as a spiteful, cruel monster because of his campaign to assassinate her character. Beethoven is despicable in these scenes, verbally and physically abusive, and stoops to bribery in order to win his lawsuit against Johanna, so he can raise Joanna’s son (his nephew) himself. Johanna, a prosperous business owner unashamed of her affairs in the past, is played by the stoic yet angelic Johanna ter Steege. Van Beethoven’s son Karl is torn between the two, and understandably grows into a miserable and depressed young man.
The most likely recipient of Beethoven’s love, according to Schindler, is the fiery Hungarian countess Erdody, played by Isabella Rossellini. And folks… this movie began a love affair with Rossellini that continues to this day. She is a goddess.
To wit: in the scene in which she meets Beethoven, he’s performing his latest piano piece accompanied by a full orchestra. But his accompanists can’t keep up; they don’t understand his work and stop playing, lowering their instruments and sharing disgusted looks. Beethoven, mortified, rises and tries to restart the performance, leading them himself. He fails miserably. The crowd becomes restive, and begins to laugh.
Erdody, following along raptly in the audience until the interruption, is enraged by the crowd’s response. She stalks up to the stage and takes Beethoven in hand, guiding him down the aisle. She says nothing as she escorts him through the crowd, but her fury is palpable and her eyes rain fire on the audience. It’s a glorious scene that gives me goosebumps. Rossellini is another actress who performs passion like no other. It’s no wonder she and Oldman married after this movie, although the marriage only lasted a few years.
The most wonderful thing about Immortal Beloved is the way the director uses music to guide scenes. The music itself deserves a performance credit. Rose played Beethoven’s pieces over loudspeakers during filming so the actors would feel it and move along with it. A crescendo here as a character runs up stairs, a declension there as another’s head dips in despair. It’s a cinematic waltz, but it’s so beautifully underplayed that it never becomes too obvious. Fun fact – Bernard Rose had the music of the opening credits removed, because it sounded so clumsy and wretched next to Beethoven’s compositions.
One of the best moments, and indeed one of my top-ten uses of music in film ever, is the performance of the 9th Symphony, the famous Ode to Joy, toward the film’s end. It is a perfect triumvirate of narrative journey, dramatic tension, and music. I don’t know why it’s not higher on the list of Great Musical Moments in Cinematic history, because it is so perfectly moving.
I’ve included the scene in its entirety below. It’s long, it’s incredibly intense, and you will need some time after. But please, make some time in your life to watch this. Mark this page, send it to yourself, post it to Facebook or whatever to watch when you have the time and are ready. It’s that important.
I’ll be honest – Immortal Beloved is a fierce, intense movie. And like anything powerful, it is worth the experience. It is one of the best illustrations of the artist’s interior struggle, and the ultimate tragedy for for some of the most brilliant minds: That people love who you are, or what you do, but rarely both.
Thanks for reading, and I hope that you check out this wonderful film!
[*Obligatory ‘why has Gary Oldman not won an Oscar by now?’ comment.]