After reluctantly taking the throne upon the unexpected death of his father, the utterly unprepared Ludwig, aged only eighteen, is overwhelmed by the responsibility of leadership and morally opposed to the spending of his kingdom’s money on its armies. He instead sets about realising his dream of bringing the people of Bavaria – and indeed the world – together, through support of the arts and in particular the work of controversial composer Richard Wagner. With the backing of a very small group of trusted confidants, and against the advice and wishes of apparently all his ministers, he focuses his efforts and wealth on opera, with the building of staggeringly opulent palaces and increasingly grand artistic endeavours.
The film charts the entirety of his public life, from his ascent to the throne, through his work with Wagner and reluctant involvement in two wars, into an old age which includes an almost total withdrawal from public life and into his own dream-like existence. This is followed by his eventual deposition as king after a conspiracy by several of Bavaria’s ministers to have him declared insane and incapable of ruling. The story concludes with Ludwig’s death, under suspicious circumstances, in a lake next to the mental asylum where he is being held.
Even in the depths of the monarch’s decadence and detachment from reality he is always a sympathetic character.
Jointly written and directed by spouses Marie Noëlle and Peter Sehr (the latter tragically passed away this spring) LUDWIG II conjures beautifully both the external and internal worlds of this bizarre and complex king. The man himself is played with often mesmerising poise by newcomer Sabin Tambrea, who manages to portray both the youthful idealism of a king in love with the arts and later a man losing his grip on reality and the world around him. Most importantly Tambrea maintains at all times enough of young Ludwig’s compassion and naivety, ensuring that even in the depths of the monarch’s decadence and detachment from reality he is always at least in part a sympathetic character. It is testament to the quality of the film and its direction that when the lead actor is changed towards the end in order to portray the ageing and increasingly ailing King in his twilight years, the introduction of Sebastian Schipper is only momentarily a distraction and is quickly forgotten in spite of the impressive performance of Tambrea.
In many films high production values such as those seen in LUDWIG II can be simply gloss, but here they are essential – the directors successfully convey the extravagance of Ludwig’s visions and achievements, without resorting to such gimmickry as modern language or soundtracks that have become common in period work over recent times. In fact, one of the great strengths of the film is its adherence to and faith in the story and its art – the directors clearly believe that the life and work of this extraordinary man is enough, if told well, to hold the audience and to take them on a journey.