JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Beethoven's Nephew (Director: Paul Morrissey) - April 26, 2004

Beethoven's Nephew

2 2
103 min.

Classic family matters

Far off the beaten path for Beethoven scholars or devotees is Paul Morrissey's 1985 portrait of the master painted on the backdrop of the turbulent relationship with his nephew, Karl.

The result is light on fact, heavy on visual subtext and with just enough of Beethoven's music to keep our interest and forgive the caricature of the world's finest symphonist.

From the opening shot of Karl (Dietmar Prinz—his only film credit) in uniform, with a bell tolling in the background Hanus Polak's camera alternates between filling the screen with the colour and beauty of late-1820's Vienna and a near over-abundance of extreme close-ups of the principals. The effect seems more of a portrait gallery than a deep study of human relationships.

The two main works are the “Spring” sonata (whose proponents remain unaccredited, as does the orchestra; cross-references below) dominating the early going—notable for first-movement pulse which is marched to in perfect step by the troubled teen in one of many hall shots, and the slow movement then Finale of the Ninth Symphony—long stretches of which are effectively "staged" as co-writer/director Paul Morrissey weaves his inventive script, which is as much about Beethoven's inability to deal with women as his smouldering attraction to young men. However, more detailed research would have ensured the inclusion of Beethoven's life-long friend, Stephan von Breuning, who likely found Karl to be more a rival than colleague.

Karl's wayward mother, Johanna (Jane Birkin, entirely convincing as the failed mom, who—if she can't have Karl—makes up for that loss by sleeping with others his age) loses custody of her only bastard son following the early death of her husband: Beethoven (Wolfgang Reichmann) has successfully petitioned the courts and is awarded guardianship claiming that his late brother's wife is a whore. For years, the young man moves from house to house with his famous uncle, copying his music and begrudgingly learning the piano (“I'd rather write, you know, theatre plays.”).

Johanna never gives up and believes that she can reclaim her son by marrying her current paramour Michael (Walter Schupfer, stilted but attractive) whose long locks, sultry demeanour and penetrating eyes remain locked on his potential son, whenever the two “men” share scenes. She soon morphs into more of a fag hag than a concerned parent with just a hint of incest reaching the surface as she lies on her son's chest, consoling each other in bed. Michael soon vacates.

Women fare no better when, following a judicial hearing where Karl (whose usual pulled-back pony tail is unleashed, curled and coloured—clearly in touch with his feminine side)—much to Beethoven's delight and chagrin—renounces his mother, but is ordered to boarding school. There, a number of hilarious scenes follow thanks to the snivelling, patronizing tone of the Headmaster (Dieter Schidor) who also serves as referee amongst the warring family. Karl is mentored with an older student and together they appear to partake in the delights of a sumptuous girl (always shot in Rubensesque poses) who seems content to be ploughed by all comers. One of these ménages is discovered by the trembling headmaster: Karl is expelled.

Throughout the film, Morrissey goes out of his way to portray Beethoven as a misfit (double dealing the sale of his music, charging passersby to hear him play and a slob (spilling his wine on his white cravat, spitting in the Archduke's presence, scattering his scores everywhere, even scratching musical graffiti on the walls). It becomes easy for us to empathize with Karl's desire to escape, but it goes too far (aided by Reichmann's eagerness to play the fool) and is at odds with the magnificent music that glues the scenes together.

The climactic sexual moment comes following a private recital in the summer palace. As Countess Erdody (Yelena Rostropovich, an able performer) plays a sonata, Beethoven nods off, prompting the ever-ready nephew to follow the penetrating stares of the house maid and do a little penetration of his own. Naturally, Beethoven cottons on then—in an action that Freud could have written volumes about—pulls his pumping ward off the servant and chases him bare-assed, flopping to and fro to his room. Once there, Karl makes no effort to cover himself as his guardian confesses that he picked up an STD in his early days. It's a touching moment, but only solidifies the notion that Karl uses women to escape, not to savour or respect.

One last heroine tries to free Karl. Actress Leonore (Nathalie Baye, whose depiction of worldly experience is the class act of the film) seduces the young man at a masked ball—that may well have inspired Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut—and quickly beds him like one more trophy. But, when Beethoven catches up—preferring to have it out with Leonore while Karl whimpers out of sight—the naïve milky-chested suitor demonstrates his impotence again.

For the remainder of the film, Morrissey takes a slice from Salieri's life and Shaffer's book (Amadeus, cross-reference below) and shows Beethoven's failed première of the Ninth (with a succession of shots that work beautifully—not only of the principals—but of Beethoven, floating with the gods in the heavens: wonderful). Its coda, which endeavours to deliver poignancy and closeness, trying to pull the drama up several notches (all the while with the D Minor Symphony lingering in our ears), is self-sabotaged by a spurious joke: Writing in Beethoven's notebook, Leonore's line “Oh, does foolish have two l's?” ruins the moment, considerably lessening the impact of her decision to leave. Then Karl, botching his own suicide—with such an unbearably petulant stare right from the first frame, makes us disappointed that he recovers—makes no mistake with his obsessed self-appointed protector, letting the pneumonia proceed unchecked.

The freedom of the Ninth Symphony never comes to Karl, even with the master's passing. In Beethoven's only opera, another Leonore (disguised as a man) successfully rescues Florestan from a deep, dark prison. But this film's attempts to liberate two men—both struggling to reveal themselves—fails on every count. Thank goodness the music has survived them all. JWR

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