In fernem Land

Ludwig (1973)


This is a fairy tale. Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lives a young king. Jet-black hair frames slim, delicate features. He dreams of a greater, enlightened, actualized future for himself and his subjects. He will have the geniuses of art and culture—the pure conduits of beauty—surrounded by and enhancing his own luxury, their every expense paid for out of his pocket to aid the struggle and suffering of creation. He finds beauty that must not be touched in the world all around him, and he will fight to preserve that perfection. Politics has no place in this world; neither does poverty. He will create paradise, even if he cannot find a soul pure enough to share it with him. He will become the Swan Knight of myth to rescue his people. 

The music starts high, almost impossibly high, in the violins. It melts in from the silence and between each legato phrase. After a small eternity, the cellos melt in below, and the rest of the orchestra joins in support of this heavenly phrase. When the brass smash in at the climax, there is no more perfect resolutionbut before the chords can fully resolve, the loud, boisterous instruments have vanished, and the violins carry the melody to an aching half-conclusion.

On stage, a young man enters on a boat shaped like a swan. It is a clunky stage contraption that directors and designers have tried, for over 170 years, to make elegant. But the theatrical gears are unimportant, hidden entirely by the music. The Swan Knight will save Elsa, proving her innocence in trial by combat and claiming the maiden’s hand in marriage. But she can never ask his name. 


This is a true story. Ludwig II is not even 19 years of age when he inherits the throne of Bavaria, a 19-century kingdom of southern Germany. He immediately backs the losing Austria against Prussia; Bavaria loses many men, much capital, and the entire war mere weeks later. Ludwig just as immediately recalls the mercurial, controversial, debt-ridden genius Richard Wagner from exile, clearing his accounts and establishing him as court composer. This relationship sours when the megalomaniac composer has an unsubtle affair with his conductor’s wife and re-publishes a previously-anonymous antisemitic treatise under his own name; after a short dismissal, he returns to scour Ludwig’s bank accounts once more. But Ludwig II needs no help spending this money; his court grows restless and alarmed as it evaporates in grandiose palaces and vanity projects, most notably Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus and increasingly resource-intensive operas. When German unification is achieved after the Franco-Prussian war—Bavaria learning from its mistakes and now backing Prussia—Ludwig is passed over for leadership in favor of his cousin Wilhelm, but leverages what independence he can for his petty kingdom. His money spent, his deficits accruing, he sits stony-faced in a swan-shaped boat in a grotto under Neuschwanstein castle, dourly paddling through the torch-lit darkness. 

The music once again starts in the strings, but here the warm, plaintive cellos lead. The first phrase ends in dissonance, the chord’s resolution a hair away and yet unreachable. The second phrase ends the same way. The melody and tension mount, building on this unresolved refrain, sweeping ever upwards before the strain dies back, incomplete. Eventually, the opening phrase appears again, inverted and then directly echoing the unfulfilled opening. The music ends; the pressure remains unreleased.

The story is mythic; its influences are modern. Every time this music returns throughout their four-hour opera, the love-drunk Tristan and Isolde are caught in their own web of desire. Their only true union and release is death.


Myth and truth collide: the Swan Knight—and Mad King—dies under still-unsolved circumstances at the age of 40, drowned in a lake with no water in his lungs. 

A mournful, dissonant piano covers the rolling credits.


The match of Italian film director Luchino Visconti and the true story of Ludwig II is cinematic serendipity. Visconti’s 1973 film, Ludwig, is like its subject: both frustratingly underwhelming and effortlessly sublime. Myth is courted but never indulged, reality presented with suffocating pomp, the grandiose in constant dialogue with the mundane. Its initial runtime was over four hours; it premiered in a cut just over three, and was swiftly reduced to a mere two to remove references to conservative idol Ludwig II’s homosexuality (facts becoming fable in real time). Now, Visconti’s apotheosis exists in four separate renderings, the longest being a 254-minute, five-part television version. The result is not rich and rewarding but grand, frustrating, and utterly unforgettable. 

Underscored by ever-repeating selections of Wagner’s music—including the previously unpublished Elegy for Piano in A-Flat Major, those doleful final notes—Ludwig is concerned with the sacred and profane, decadent and divine. Yet through Visconti’s lens, both become muted, swathed in luxury and ultimately meaningless. The pursuit of one at the expense of the other becomes Ludwig’s ultimate tragedy, freezing himself and his cold, ostentatious wealth on camera for all time. Portrayed by Helmut Berger, Ludwig is a statue and symbol of his own making, his humanity continually undermined by his own pursuit of legend as he drapes riches over himself and his surroundings. His smooth face is the last to betray his passions; his gilded person and grand palaces the first.

Berger’s Ludwig seeks the spirituality he finds in the mythic operas of Richard Wagner, portrayed by Trevor Howard as a megalomaniac of pleasures, vices, and unshakeable—somehow correct—belief in his talent and calling. Howard’s Wagner feels more at home among the sumptuous fabrics and trappings afforded by Ludwig, rolling on the carpet with a spoiled dog and openly dallying with his best friend’s wife. (In real life, Hans von Bülow would conduct two Wagner premieres while his wife, Cosima, bore Wagner three children, each named after the heroine or hero of his own work.) The opera that Ludwig II first pays for, Tristan und Isolde, is a thinly-veiled yet transcendent paean to love at any cost, placing sex at its height, its opening chord only resolved in a love-death (liebestod) in the piece’s final moments. The opera’s picture of all-encompassing passion against convention is far removed from Wagner’s earlier opera, Lohengrin, the story of a pure Swan Knight of the Grail, which premiered in the composer’s pre-Schopenhauerian days. In Ludwig, Lohengrin’s holy theme plays over Ludwigs II’s rapturous adulation as he orders his ministers to track down Wagner, his genius idol, who remains one step ahead of both creditors and the King’s agents. Ludwig dreams of an impossibly enlightened future, the one he saw at the age of 15 when he first encountered Wagner’s boundary-pushing romanticism in Lohengrin. But the works the royal coffers fund—nuanced, human, and pushing the boundaries of traditional morality and tonalism—raise contradictions that the king cannot place in shiny boxes. 

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, was drawn towards opulence throughout the back half of his career. The working class struggles of earlier films White Nights and Rocco and His Brothers, where his politics (if not his background) lay, gave way to explorationshalf in glorification, half in condemnationof the high and mighty. The Leopard adapted a literary classic with extravagance; The Damned found perhaps his greatest expression of material and spiritual corruption. In the Italian director’s crepuscular years, Death in Venice and Ludwig found root in the rotted aristocracy of pre-World War I Europe. In the documentary The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, which begins with Visconti’s use and abuse of Björn Andrésen on the set of Death in Venice, the director is introduced as a communist with servants. This documentary does not go into the political nuance of this statement, or whether Visconti’s servants were paid living wages and treated with human decency. Its purpose is clear: Visconti is a man besotted by the high and mighty he condemns, apolitical in pursuit of aesthetics. 

No expense or inconvenience was spared in the film’s lush design and settings. Location shots at the many palaces Ludwig II built or expandedRoseninsel, Residenz Palace, Castle Herrenchiemsee, Castle Hohenschwangau, Linderhof Palace, Nymphenburg Palace, Neuschwanstein Castleanchor Ludwig in its subject’s surroundings of monumental, museum-like spaces that never quite reach homeliness. Costumes are equally drawn from history, swallowing the trim cast in furs and velvets. In a world of wealth and opulence, surprisingly little time is spent on food, and only background characters register as anything other than slim. Carnal desire is lacking in Ludwig’s court, even as he pushes for more and more extravagant parties and orgies among his guards. Only Wagner—solid, knowing, corrupt—feels of this world. 

Ludwig’s interactions with those he lovesperhaps love feels an afterthought in a world this gilded—are continually framed against this ostentatious wealth. The king is so ossified by his pursuit of beauty that any relationship outside luxury cannot be considered. Berger is aged gracefully through the magic of makeup artistry, his hair and face forming firm lines; the matinee idol actor, 29 years old at the time of release, is equally convincing as an angelic teenager—dressed in the spitting image of Ludwig’s own coronation uniform—and as a harried, harrowed man. Ludwig remains unreadable, unmarked by the world through his own efforts to keep it at bay. In these moments of icy theatricality, his foolhardy efforts are most vulnerable.

This sense of longing (for romance, for the romance of days past, for the romance of a future memory) and its substituteunimaginable wealth—plays terrifying games in Visconti’s film. Ludwig II is engaged to Duchess Sophie Charlotte, but this will come to nothing. In his preparations for his upcoming nuptials, his cousin enlists a sex worker to teach him his marital duties; after listening disinterestedly to her artless advances, he throws her in a large ornate bathtub with surprising brutality. Her sobs echo against marble as he coldly commands his guards to drag her from the water. Sophie will leave him (more on her place in the tale soon).

As Sophie’s older sister, Empress Elizabeth of Austria—Ludwig’s closest friend, perhaps his only true one—Romy Schneider is barely aged at all. Yes, Schneider is older than when she played the same character in the Sissi films of the 1950s, but so is the Empress, and her changing styles befit the grace and dignity due screen royalty. She appears already an established monarch as Ludwig II is crowned, his equal in rank and senior in years, well-placed for his confidence and needing no favors. She sweeps through the ceremony as stately, solemn deference is paid. She cannot be rushed, and those paying respect (including Visconti’s camera) would never dream of hurrying their devotion in the rank and degree demanded. She remains an incorruptible vision of aristocracy, the last remnant of the old romantic age. Sissi and Sophie will both outlive Ludwig but die like him, prematurely and tragically: the elder assassinated by an anarchist, the younger in the Bazar de la Charité fire.

After Sophie’s departure, Ludwig drives the women in his life further and further from him while inviting, then dismissing, male lovers. The king begins a tryst with the visiting actor playing Romeo, Josef Kainz, removing him with disappointed dispassion when the performer reveals himself to merely be after riches and rank. Visconti does not dwell on the sensual in this film. He heightens expectations—how can he not, with his history and these opulent surroundings?—but immediately undercuts passionate fantasies with the underwhelming reality. In the end, Ludwig loves ideas more than people, or even the lavish beauty his money can buy. He turns inwards to perhaps more crushing disappointment, and outward to hopeless materialistic creation. He icily, dispassionately refuses to see Sissi when she comes for one last desperate visit; as his brother ails, he watches with fetid curiosity.

It is surprising, perhaps, that Ludwig and Wagner only share one notable scene in the film’s runtime, when the temporarily disillusioned king dismisses his idol for adultery. Despite the sweeping orchestrations of timeless, formally unified musikdrama, the film downplays both Ludwig’s devotion to and censure of the composer. Here, he does not wish to abdicate to follow his idol into antisocial exile: Ludwig must have his finery; he is one with his surroundings. Visconti likewise spends no time on Wagner’s antisemitism; perhaps it is too well-known in the wake of Hitler, or perhaps Ludwig’s defense of his Jewish orchestra director Hermann Levi, who conducted Wagner’s operas after the cuckolded von Bülow departed, would complicate these vignettes. Who needs human frailty when it will cost these mythic figures their aesthetic aims? 

Instead, Visconti focuses solely on Wagner’s grandeur in self-image and tastes, which mirror his patron’s in lavishness, but find bold, bawdy, decadent expression where Ludwig’s follow an enlightened path. Howard, face framed by an historically accurate blond neckbeard, is repulsively compelling, swanning through interactions with infectious self-importance. Styled and groomed straight out of the famous Franz Hanfstaengl portrait, Howard dominates the screen in his handful of appearances. When Wagner dies—offscreen, in Venice, of a sudden heart attack—no memorial remains except a piano draped in black. Ludwig’s guest is informed that the beautiful instrument will not be played again. It is certainly a melodramatic statement, but surprisingly dignified. 

Before this end, Howard’s Wagner ages into softness, his neckbeard growing white as he kisses the children in front of the tree on Christmas Day (their first Christmas as a proper family, Cosima’s divorce having been finalized the previous July). He crows up to his wife, a string ensemble serenading her with an original composition that he swears is for her and her alone. What a gift to be married to genius! This chamber music, his Siegfried Idyll (named for his newborn son and the hero of his epic Ring Cycle), is private, intimate—the one melody Cosima can call her own. The film indulges this lavish Christmas fantasy, ignoring the future when Wagner sells the piece to pay debts that even the king will not cover, to Cosima’s heartbreak. Money always comes before love.

The heart of Ludwig is clearly not found with its decadent king, or with its grandiose master of ceremonies. Instead, it is the lost princess in a distant land. Duchess Sophie Charlotte has made one of the most enviable engagements in Europe. Yet halfway through Ludwig, she sits dejected on her bed. Her hair, almost long enough to sit on, fans out around her shoulders and down her back. She tells her sister, the Empress Elisabeth—Sissi, immortalized by Schneider just as she was in those opulent fairy tale biopics of the 1950s—that Ludwig refuses to call her by her name: Elsa, he calls her, just like the rescued heroine of Lohengrin, and she does not know how to respond. Sissi tries to soothe her, telling her that it is the folly of young, deep, clueless love to make up names for the object of their affections, clearly knowing but papering over Ludwig’s glorious fantasies. But Sophie remains suspicious and unmollified. She knows, deep down, under the gifts with which Ludwig has showered her, that he cannot see her for a breathing, bleeding woman. He sees only the fairy tale, the princess to be saved. She wonders if he even sees her at all, or sees only the Swan Knight he imagines himself to be. Like Wagner’s other princessthe imperious, imprisoned Isolde, betrothed to a strangershe chooses her own fate; unlike Isolde, it is life. She breaks the engagement. Ludwig quietly and swiftly mourns the dream.  

Elsa is young and curious. On her wedding night, she asks her savior his name, what she can call her beloved. He balks, insisting love must be enough. She insists and persists. Tragedy strikes, a spy is killed, and the Swan Knight knows that he cannot find rest. He must depart immediately, but he will reveal his true self to the assembled court. “In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten”—in a land far away, inaccessible to your steps—Lohengrin begins his story

There is a castle called Montsalvat;
A bright temple stands there in the middle,
As precious as nothing is known on earth;
Inside a vessel of miraculous blessings
Is guarded there as the highest sanctuary:
It was the purest cultivation of mankind,
Brought down by a company of angels…

This otherworldly beauty and vision of heaven on earth, to which Lohengrin returns with his swan from the disappointment of mortality, cannot be reconciled in the stagnant king on his windless pond. In the bowels of a castle built for a false god, he finds no transcendence. Even the wild orgiastic parties he hosts following this disappointment resound with a similar putridity: humanity is impoverished by such excess.

As Ludwig approaches the king’s demise, its ambiguity reveals its strength. The Mad King moniker is a cruel one, bestowed in a time when insanity was a label to depose an unpopular monarch and understandings of true mental health struggles were lacking (“The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams,” the real Sissi famously said.) Visconti clearly details the luxury with which Ludwig II drove himself tens of millions of marks into debt, visualizing Ludwig’s futile search for an actualized existence. He captures the consternation of advisors and allies almost as a documentary, with the historical characters talking directly to camera, narrating the need for their sovereign’s fall. These stark sections, usually without music, cut abruptly from the wistful, soaring scores and sumptuous settings of royal existence.

Soon, these walls close in, too: Ludwig II is deposed, trapped in Spartan rooms, dark wood and white walls replacing gilt and shimmer. The deposition takes two days and one escape attempt; Berger’s face remains imperious, regal, even a bit bemused at the beginning, but desperation and dishevelment break through as Ludwig is told repeatedly that no examination will reveal his sanity. On the third day, Ludwig II disappears on a walk around Lake Starnberg.

Visconti’s final location shoot is a tour de force of human resources. Dozens, if not hundreds, of extras lead the search by foot, horse, and hound—not a regal military uniform out of place. The resulting cacophony veils the mystery; their stampede overwhelms the tragedy of the young, missing king (remember: he is only 40; he has much life left ahead). When Ludwig’s waterlogged body is fished with much effort and inexpert boating skills from the lake, the body’s insignificance is glaring. The hubbub above and around it eclipses a royal whose grand dreams felt all-encompassing the hour, the year, the lifetime before. In the television version, this furore abruptly gives way to rolling credits across the frozen frame of Berger’s open-mouthed corpse. There is no place for a liebestod.

“I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others,” Ludwig II wrote to an actress friend in 1876, bowdlerizing Schiller. It is all too perfect that no definitive version of Ludwig exists. Even the longest, most ‘complete’ film is cobbled together with the original English audio and dubbed Italian cuts intertwined. Now that two of its four versions are relatively accessible on DVD, Visconti’s errant ambitions are easier to appreciate.

The funny thing about time is that, like wealth, it can distort the truth. The funny thing about the truth is that, through time and strategically applied wealth, it can refract into multiples. Ludwig is a beautiful puzzle, an imperfect gesamtkunstwerk, exposing the grime under the glitz while taking an almost distant stance on murder and bigotry. Once upon a time, in a far away land, a Swan Knight saved a kingdom and two lovers shared a potion, or perhaps a poison. At 6:54pm on 13 June, 1886, on the grounds of Schloss Berg in modern-day Luxembourg, Ludwig II’s watch stopped.