JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Immortal Beloved (Director/Writer: Bernard Rose) - August 2, 2005
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Immortal Beloved

2 2
121 min.

Fantastical script skewers the master

As writer and director, Bernard Rose must take full responsibility for the fictions masquerading as fact in his treatment of Beethoven’s life and loves. Fortunately, the music, Jiri Hlupy’s production-design and Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography are of such outstanding quality that the film is still worth seeing even as its generosity with the truth stands in stark contrast to the magnificent sounds and stunning images that fill our ears and eyes.

From the opening “A,” morphing into an orchestra’s pre-concert warm-up, the vagaries begin: we hear French horns testing their Seventh Symphony’s cries only to move immediately into the Fifth. Beethoven (portrayed with lecherous vigour but not enough depth by Gary Oldman) dutifully expires, then, with the “Kyrie” from Missa Solemnis (conducted by Georg Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra who provide the bulk of the sturdy and convincing soundtrack) adding verisimilitude, we are given voice-over characterizations such as “They called him callous. [Beethoven] lived alone because he found no second self.” in order to set the stage for Schindler’s (Jeroen Krabbé, who comes across far too selfless than the man who had “Ami de Beethoven”-cards printed up after the funeral) discovery of the never-delivered letter to “The Immortal Beloved,” hidden away in the deceased’s personal effects.

Greedy brother Johann (Gerard Horan)—along for the search—bursts into hysterics when a second “last will” is also unearthed. It leaves his brother’s estate to the likewise identified “Immortal Beloved“—without further identification.

The facts differ: Beethoven’s will left his entire estate to his long-suffering nephew, Karl, who Beethoven took legal guardianship of when his other brother Kasper died. The courts only allowed this when it was proved that Karl’s mother (pregnant with him prior to her marriage) was not averse to populating her bed with a steady stream of suitors. Paul Morrissey’s film, Beethoven’s Nephew (cross-reference below), examines the same circumstances and comes up with a diametrically different explanation.

But both films ignore one of the key players in the maestro’s life: Stephan von Breuning. This lifelong friend lived with Beethoven for a time, had the Violin Concerto dedicated to him and assisted with the re-writing of the libretto for Fidelio. Their relationship only cooled during the years that Karl was being brought-up by his famous uncle. When Breuning died (just months after his friend) the Heilingenstadt Testament was found amongst his papers—no one had heard of this incredible document (addressed to his brothers) until then.

But—like most fiction writers—Rose contents himself with using the facts he likes and sends us on a two-hour hunt for the only woman who, apparently, had truly captivated our greatest symphonist.

Through flashback and Schindler’s penance (“We couldn’t make his life tolerable so his last wish [revised will] must be granted.”) the three contestants—Anna Marie Erdody, Isabella Rossellini; Johanna Reiss, Johanna ter Steege; Giulietta Guicciardi, Valeria Golino—are tracked down and interrogated one-by-one. All have secrets to reveal and—in the case of the Contessa—a delicate bosom that amply serves to demonstrate Beethoven’s unbridled lust for the female form.

With such a vast catalogue, it was instructive that the “Adagio&rdquo from the “Emperor” Piano Concerto (Murray Perahia, solist) was chosen to be the musical and emotional glue. Its haunting opening is heard when Beethoven is further defamed by a nosy chambermaid in Karlsbad, again while we are shown the filth he lives in (with scores splashed helter skelter all over the floor—really!?) and finally the complete movement (the piano only appearing in this offering) as the letter to the Immortal Beloved is read.

Beethoven’s deafness, central to his character is dealt with unevenly. The notebooks abound, but the “hearing aids” are never introduced. He can’t hear well enough to conduct his own music in public (What happened at the rehearsals? Was it just stage fright that caused the winds to run amok “on the night?”) or teach, but with his head sideways on the lid (bringing an unintended chuckle from this ultimate playing-by-ear imagery) he manages to deliver a stellar rendition of the “Moonlight” Sonata’s opening.

However, most of the beautiful moments are destroyed when we learn through Beethoven’s dialogue that the “Kreutzer” Sonata is, in fact, the aural depiction of a carriage stuck in the mud. Rose misses again.

When the Ninth finally appears (despite a ludicrous scene where petulant Karl ridicules the “Ode to Joy” as a childish sign of impending madness), the power of the music transcends the script and validates the genius under study. Then, in the shot of the film, Beethoven is shown at one with the universe, his freedom assured and immortality secure. Not so for those who would have us accept their quaint fabrications. For them indeed, “The comedy is over.” JWR

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