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
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
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