Nineteenth Century Europe was almost littered with Kingdoms, Principalities, Empires and the titular heads of state to go along with them all. Very few of these kings, princes or dukes have survived in popular lore into the twenty first century. And often when their stories are still told, it’s because of the way they lost their realm, or because they played supporting roles in more important stories. Think Victor Emmanuel being the figure head used by Garibaldi, or Louis Napoleon, last Emperor of France, destined to be remembered as Claude Rains, ready to betray his puppet Maximilian in Mexico in Juarez (1938, William Dieterle). We’ll return to German director Dieterle, shortly.

Out of all these royal personages, one has perhaps endured in the popular imagination more than others, at least if tourist visits and dedicated movies are taken as a guide. (1) This is Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm, Ludwig II of Bavaria. But why has this failed, unhappy king endured as possibly the best-remembered European ruler of the 19th Century?

His grandfather Ludwig I is now remembered more as one of the lovers of Lola Montez, (2) even more than for his abdication from the Bavarian throne in 1848, during the popular democratic demonstrations that swept Europe in that year. His son, Maximilian, ruled Bavaria from 1848 until 1864 when he died suddenly after a three day illness, and his elder son became monarch of Bavaria, aged just eighteen. Twenty-two years later, that son Ludwig would be dead – an accident? Suicide? Murder? The matter of his life and the manner of his life are the stuff to feed legends.

Architecture and music were the two fields where Ludwig’s involvement had great impact, to the extent that he may be as important a 19th Century Patron of the Arts as, for example, were the Medici in the 14th Century. He indulged his obsession with grandeur and seclusion by commissioning (with State money, of course) a number of magnificent palaces, including Schloss Neuschwanstein, the prototype fairy tale castle, and surely the inspiration for the Walt Disney company’s logo. And in music, his name goes hand in glove with that of the composer Richard Wagner. He absorbed Wagner’s sometimes extravagant dreams, and lost himself in the operas celebrating old Teutonic heroes. At a time when many solid German citizens disliked the composer’s daring music, resented his indulgence in luxury at other people’s expense, and abominated his domestic and conjugal arrangements, Ludwig stood by him. In this, Ludwig was clearly of great importance in supporting the artist responsible for the great cultural peak of The Ring cycle of operas, still the benchmark for many opera companies.

During his life, Ludwig became more and more of a recluse, retreating more and more into his own solitude, even when political events demanded his very public presence in Munich, his capital. Like Howard Hughes, the most famous recluse of the next century, legends grew up around him. The legends, the whispers, the history have inspired film makers over much of the twentieth century, their “printing of the legend” often revealing as much about their own interests and times as of Ludwig and his century.

Rolf Raffé directed his film Das Schweigen am Starnbergersee (The Silence at the Starnberg Lake) in 1920. Early in June, 1886, Ludwig’s ministers had him declared insane, and his uncle Luitpold took over as Regent. After one bungled attempt at restraining him, Ludwig was removed to Castle Berg, on the shores of Lake Starnberg. Shortly after his arrival, he went for a night walk. He never returned alive, his body, as well as that of his doctor, being found in the lake. The official coronial verdict was suicide by drowning. Certainly Ludwig had spoken of suicide, but the manner of his death did not prevent theories of murder, assassination, foul play. The water was shallow. Why was his doctor also dead? Were there bullets in the bodies?

When Raffé made his film in 1920, the event was still within living memory for some Bavarians. Many more would have heard the stories of the mysterious death of the handsome king from their parents and grandparents. Raffé reflects the legendary status of this event in his title, but it is ultimately only a small part of his film, and he does not really investigate the event, or argue for a particular view on Ludwig’s death.

In fact, the first half of the film focuses on Richard Wagner, and his relationship with Ludwig. The film opens on Wagner, reading of the death of Maximilian II. As Wagner reads the reports about the new king, he bemoans, “There will never be a ruler idealistic enough to bring my works to the stage.” So, the opening of the film is structured to highlight this aspect of Ludwig’s reign.

Although some images and titles seem to present Wagner as almost predatory – a very credible interpretation of his relationship with Ludwig – the film is basically sympathetic to Wagner. The scandal about Wagner’s affair with Cosima von Bulow, the wife of his conductor and the daughter of Franz Liszt is completely ignored. And when Ludwig is heartbroken at the collapse of his own relationship with Sophie it is Wagner who consoles him. “Let the magic of art transport you to Valhalla,” Wagner advises him. It appears Ludwig takes this advice instantly to heart, because the next title informs us, “Ludwig’s empire of beauty begins.”

The simplicity of this explanation for Ludwig’s retreat to his solitary castle building, or command performances of operas for him alone is very much the tone of this film. His relationship with his one-time betrothed, the Duchess Sophie, is seen as collapsing because she dared to go paddling bare foot in a small stream and because she perhaps flirted a bit with her portrait painter. There is absolutely no suggestion of Ludwig’s own sexuality, or his inability to advance the relationship.

After having been given such a significant role in the narrative structure at the start, Wagner disappears almost perfunctorily about thirty minutes into the film, abetted by the sleight of hand of a title, “Years have past”. (sic) After some scenes of Ludwig enjoying Wagner’s culture (and Wagner more than enjoying the king’s patronage), Wagner simply tells Ludwig that he must take a journey. “I am accused of being a bad influence on the king.” Next, a committee of Munich citizens rejects plans for a Festival Theatre (surely a reference to Wagner’s dream that did result in the Bayreuth Opera House as the home for his Ring cycle of operas.) Ludwig is hurt by this, “I wanted to make all of you rich, proud and happy. From now on I will erect monuments to my happiness in the wilderness.” And so the building of Linderhof Palace and the Neuschwanstein Castle is explained to us.

Overall, the interest of The Silence at the Starnberg Lake is directly in how much it is a document of its time. Cinematically, it is almost primitive. Many interiors are clearly filmed outdoors because of slow film stock, the acting is theatrical and frequently over demonstrative (at least to our eyes), and the camera work is frequently static. In some cases, postcards are used instead of filming the real rooms inside the picture post-card palaces Ludwig built. It also is basically sympathetic to Ludwig. For all his weaknesses, it would seem Ludwig was still a popular monarch. It was a time when royalty engendered the unquestioning love of a nation simply because it was royalty, and Ludwig, handsome and personable when he became king, certainly enjoyed the love of many of his people. Just two generations on, it was not yet time for a critical or psychological examination of the king. For another thing, the 738-year reign of the house of Wittelsbach in Bavaria had only ended two years earlier in the wash-up to the First World War.

Every era has the right to reinterpret history, and to attempt to understand a historical figure better than they were understood in the past. Today we have a better understanding of the person’s underlying nature, formed by their disposition, upbringing and the era they lived in.

That paragraph effectively serves to introduce discussion of a second film about Ludwig, because it is actually from the opening titles to the film itself. Ludwig der Zweite (Ludwig II) had the sub-title One Man’s Fate (Das Schecksal eines Menschen), and was made in 1930, directed by Wilhelm Dieterle who also took the lead role. That same year, Dieterle became one of the many creative artists who migrated to America. There, as William Dieterle, he began a successful career as a director. His filmography included three more film biographies, The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939), as well as a famous version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) from a famous theatrical production by another émigré, Max Reinhardt. Ludwig II was produced by Joe Pasternak. Pasternak, Hungarian by birth, had been a busboy at Paramount in the 1920s before being sent to its production operations in Berlin by Universal. With the rise of Nazism he returned to Hollywood and a subsequent successful career as a producer including films with Deanna Durbin, Mario Lanza and Elvis Presley.

If that opening title was meant as an argument for a new film about Ludwig only ten years after The Silence at Starnberg Lake¸ so many aspects of the film itself make an even stronger argument. Dramatically, it is much better structured, with most of the film covering only the last few years of Ludwig’s life, when his passion for solitude was now eccentric, and disquiet was certainly rife amongst his ministers.

Ludwig II ascends to the throne at 18 years of age. The people sing his praises and idolize his beauty. But no one is able to follow his high-flown thoughts. He recognizes this and flees, disappointed into the solitude of his mountains… This causes discontent in the capital… The government chastises…And so Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, begins his tremendous final battle. (3)

Most of Ludwig’s reign is covered by a montage sequence, with the above titles inter-cut. The stormy relationship with Wagner passes by with one image, dissolving into some key political events such as the rise of Bismarck and Prussia before the film establishes its “present time” by starting its action in a tavern. Five solid burghers are discussing politics over their steins of beer.

“They say he’s losing his mind”, one says. The camera follows another beer stein to the Police station, where officers are discussing rumours of a plot against Ludwig. A document case passes from a lowly official, higher and higher up the chain of command. It is carried in turn by a number of attendants and flunkeys and contains material that could be used against the king. We see it in a cabinet meeting, where a senior minister states that whatever action is taken, “the welfare of the people takes precedence.” One of the officials declares the king’s building plans “are our hope”. This is the cue for the final part of this very smooth transition sequence and takes us to our first glimpse of Ludwig, supervising the work on one of his castles.

In this short, concise opening, we have covered so many of the “facts” of the king’s early reign, facts that can be in danger of bogging down a film’s narrative. Several important aspects of the film’s approach have also been sketched in, especially the role of “the people”. There is a sense of a nation, a polity with a king, officials and “the people”. At particular moments in this drama of the last days, we return to the people. As well, this sense of nation is an important element of the drama. In those pre-mass media days, Ludwig was a popular monarch, and that popularity was a safeguard against some of the political manoeuvring against him. Ludwig himself believed his relationship with his people – even if he hated venturing among them – would protect him.

There is also, as the opening title promises, a deeper understanding of his personality, even if some aspects cannot be explored in depth. There is a telling scene, hinting at his homosexuality. The King receives a consignment of classical statues, Greek studies of male nudes. One is of an athlete standing, another depicts two naked wrestlers. As Ludwig admires them, a cut suggests he is also thinking how his manservant would look in the same stance as one of the athletes. It is a well-handled, discreet scene, but when Ludwig smashes one of the statues, we can certainly read that as suggesting he feels tormented by his sexuality.

When the officials feel they are now in a position to dethrone Ludwig, they toast this with champagne glasses. A cut links their champagne with the beer steins of the “ordinary people” in the tavern. Ominously, they are now saying, “He was an artist’s king, but through his ideals he lost sight of the people. “ But again sympathy is expressed for Ludwig, “If they wanted to declare all kings insane on those grounds, soon there wouldn’t be any left.”

During the farcical events surrounding the first attempts to restrain Ludwig, the tavern philosophers say, “When the men in power don’t like someone he’s gone. But when we don’t like someone he’s bound to stay.”

This film was made during 1929, the final years of the Weimar Republic, and the years when the Nazi party and its influence were growing. From our perspective, the film seems benign, with any political comment limited to generalities about the people already discussed. But at the time, it became a cause célèbre, and the focus of a censorship tussle between the free state of Bavaria and the German Reich. Public opposition came from groups loyal to the House of Wittelsbach. Their threats of public protests were effective in disrupting plans for its presentation in Munich.

Some scenes were shortened. “The Chamber [of the Berlin Film Inspection] takes that view that … in the portrayal of still-living persons, in particular relatives of the king, the impression could be gotten that they had acted in order to cause the king to be declared insane. Therefore, the scenes and titles that are in this connection objectionable, are forbidden.” (4) Eighty years on, it is hard to see anything volatile about it. It is a dramatically effective, cinematically interesting and creative film. It was also, certainly, one of the last silent films to be made in Germany. Its release was a full two years after the New York premiere of The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) launched talking pictures, and only three weeks exactly before the premiere of Der blaue Engel, (The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg 1930), which was most definitely a talkie.

Four decades on – and a World War that could be said that have started from Ludwig’s old kingdom of Bavaria – two major filmmakers turned to Ludwig’s story, with both films appearing first in 1972. Luchino Visconti’s Italian film is simply called Ludwig. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg ‘s German film is Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King). Both are rich films, using Ludwig’s story in vastly differing ways.

Visconti’s Ludwig can be seen as the final film in an informal trilogy exploring key moments of the 19th Century. Senso (1954) is a love story set in 1866, the final days of Austria’s occupation of Venice. Il Gattapardo (The Leopard, 1963) is set against events of great social and political upheaval at the start of the same decade in Sicily. And Ludwig, though it covers a greater period of time, starts midway between the two films, with Ludwig’s ascension to the throne of Bavaria in 1864.

In each case, we can see the relationship between the characters, their personal lives, and the social changes taking place at the time. Only the Prince, in The Leopard, really survives his times because he has the capacity to see what is going on, and to adapt to those changes even if he regrets them. He understands and accepts. Franz, in Senso, cannot see a place for himself in the new world order, and tries to protect his position. But his inability to accept what is going on is a factor in his downfall.

Ludwig, also, does not survive. He is the King, but he does not understand what it means to be a king at this point of the 19th Century. The King is not just a person with the Divine Right of power, but also a person with responsibilities. Ludwig’s tragedy comes from his inability to accept or handle those responsibilities. His cousin, Elizabeth has a deeper, if more cynical, understanding. “Monarchs like us don’t make history. We are needed as a facade. Unless they give us a little importance by killing us.”

If Raffé, in his 1920 film, emphasises the significance of Wagner by privileging him with the opening scene, Visconti perhaps betrays his Italian/Catholic background with his opening sequence, a conversation between Ludwig and his priest. The priest advises Ludwig, “…don’t be too proud, but fear the duty you have been called to fulfil. Because from this moment on, the path to salvation will become more arduous for you.”

Ludwig’s reply gives a premonition that already he sees his reign as a time for great art. “You know how I’ve been waiting in anguish for this day…Lately I’ve been feeling more serene because I’ve understood how I should use my power…I will be able to gather around me truly wise men, men of great talent, great artists. And to all of them I will humbly ask for help. The monuments of my kingdom will be built for them.”

However, Visconti’s view is too all-embracing to simply see one or two characteristics as explaining the unique aspects of Ludwig’s life. It is a public life, and a private life. It is a life lived in the 19th Century, influenced by dreams of a Germanic past and folklore, by the richness of the arts, but also by new strands in science and politics.

Ludwig’s fascination with Richard Wagner is always seen as an integral part of his story. Visconti clearly loved telling this part of the story, even indulging himself with a recreation of Wagner’s Christmas present to Cosima of his Siegfried Idyll, marking the birth of their son, Siegfried. This event is really more part of a Wagner narrative than the Ludwig narrative, but Visconti recreates the legendary first performance, with musicians playing the beautiful piece of music on the staircase of the Wagner home, waking Cosima on Christmas morning. The sheer beauty of the music and Visconti’s sensitive filming of the episode becomes the justification of its inclusion in Ludwig’s story.

Ludwig’s fascination with architecture, or more particularly, palaces is well known. Compared to the earlier films, Visconti has access to the original buildings, and colour film. The interiors are always ravishing, with the ‘scope frame revelling in the details of nineteenth century interior decoration. Within the terms of Ludwig’s era, his own innate sense of taste is captured by Visconti, in a way that is beautifully contrasted when several scenes take place in Wagner’s residence. At first glance, his sitting room seems to reflect the same taste for ornate furniture, knickknacks and ornaments everywhere, fussy wallpaper, luxuriant indoor plants. But then you sense a falseness, a coarseness in the Wagner interiors as opposed to the quiet taste of Ludwig’s rooms.

Ludwig is also shown as aware of the science of the day, with one scene in a room Ludwig has set up so the passage of the planets and the earth and moon can be demonstrated with models and light. (Compare this interest to the observatory scene in The Leopard, where we see the Prince and his telescopes – perhaps showing the Prince as one who wants to see for himself, where Ludwig is content with the comfort and security (and aesthetics) of a model.)

The structuring of the film brings in the political element. After the opening confessional scene with Ludwig at the beginning of his reign, we cut to a talking head, addressing us directly. He is initiating an enquiry into whether the king is still fit to rule “our ill-fated, despised, ridiculed and tormented Bavaria.” He has, he informs us, been a minister since that inauguration back in 1864, which is a cue for a cut to that inauguration. The pomp of that ceremony is undercut by Ludwig and his younger brother Otto, playing a joke by switching roles as the dignitaries are introduced at Court.

This structuring device of the inquiry into Ludwig’s fitness operates in several interesting ways. It establishes the “present time” of the film as being at the close of Ludwig’s reign in 1886, and invites us to view all the scenes we see as flashbacks, and to regard those scenes as evidence proffered up to us to judge Ludwig as a ruler. Throughout the film, different witnesses at the enquiry address us directly, a single talking head. These different witnesses effectively introduce key moments from the life, until at the end events overtake the enquiry, and the film follows events subsequent to the decision to remove Ludwig from the throne.

These accounts keep in mind the political dimension of Ludwig’s life. If he is occupying himself, perhaps losing himself, in the arts and sciences, he is still the ruler, and there are expectations that a state has of its king. We are kept aware of these expectations and responsibilities, even if Ludwig is trying to flee them.

Ludwig’s dramatic death, drowning in a lake in very shallow water in front of the palace where he was being restrained, at night and in the rain, has been the final element keeping his story fascinating for many generations. Was it an accident? Suicide? Political assassination? Visconti would seem to see it as Ludwig’s final, dramatic gesture. Talking to a servant after a short time before that night, Ludwig has commented that drowning is a fine death. That night, shortly before going for his final walk in the rain, he comments to Dr Gudden (who will drown with Ludwig), “I am an enigma. And I want to remain an enigma, forever… For other people… and also for myself.”

And after his body has been found, the minister who was the first witness at the beginning of the film now rounds off the life with the official statement, “Our King has committed suicide. And in order to do so, His Majesty had to kill Dr. Gudden. Take the bodies to the castle immediately.”

This is official and definitive. Or is it? The official words may have just been too ready at hand, to match a pre-determined outcome? And maybe he wants to cover some evidence? The only certainty is, as Ludwig wished before his fatal night walk, he is an enigma. But he is an enigma still worth contemplating, an enigma that can lead us to sharing pleasures of architecture and the arts, an enigma that invites reflection on power and politics, personal responsibility, sanity and mental illness, society and sexuality. It is a rich film.

In the same year of Visconti’s Ludwig, Hans Jurgen Syberberg released Ludwig – Requiem fur einen jungfraulichen König (Ludwig – Requiem for a Virgin King.) This was to become the first part of Syberberg’s German trilogy, with Karl May (1974) and Hitler, Ein Film aus Deutschland (Hitler, a Film from Germany ,or Our Hitler, a Film From Germany, 1977), which alone has a running time of 442 minutes. Karl May (1842-1912) was a popular writer particularly of adventures set in America’s Old West. He created the characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand who have featured in many German westerns.

At one point in Karl May, the writer says,

“…a nation’s acts do not come from the superficial, but rather from its soul. With this soul are the fairy tales of my grandmother, told as she spun, they tell, born by candlelight of the fears and dreams of the night. The finest deeds of a nation have always emerged from its soul. And however great a writer’s imagination is, he could never force an idea on his people that was not already slumbering in its soul. But beware when the false prophet comes, and arouses the wrong forces, for these deeds also await the rousing call from the soul of the people to whom I belong.”

These words could be the key to this trilogy. Although Syberberg is ostensibly making films about three famous Germans, the films in no way resemble the routine “biopic.” Rather, they are more like an examination of the German soul, a soul that encompasses great music and genocide, Goethe and Goebbels. A film about the soul, or perhaps the ‘ethos’ of a nation, is a rare thing indeed, and Syberberg’s film about Ludwig is unlike any of the other films about the king.

If a nation’s soul exists outside the normal rules of chronology, or historical evidence, then the structure of the film exists outside the normal narrative conventions. Obviously many of the same events or characters appear in all films, but Syberberg is free to include references from long before Ludwig to way after. One of his questions is surely: how did the German nation throw up a Hitler? Wagner has often been referenced in connection with this, with some completely vilifying Wagner (the Israeli state?) while others leaping to his defence and seeing no mote at all.

The Wagner “problem” is more complex here. There is obviously the sheer potency of the music, and Syberberg uses it frequently to sustain a mesmeric mood. Wagner is certainly seen as expressing an important aspect of the German soul – but he himself came out of that soul, as his use of legendary stories from Germanic folklore demonstrates. He has also been taken over by other parts of the German soul, as Syberberg is able to express. In one section of the film, “Nightmare of a Dream King”, the representation of Wagner is split between an austerely, almost masculinely dressed woman, and a dwarf cartwheeling at the front of the tableau. Feeling the weight on his shoulders imposed by subsequent generations, the (female) Wagner says, “Only when Niki de St. Phalle, Jim Dine, Werner Schroeter, Magdalena Montezuma and Ernest Fuchs produce “The Ring” will I be free again.” (The references are to several non-mainstream personalities from the worlds of art, theatre and film at the time. People moving in Fassbinder’s circle at the time would have known them.)

Wagner’s lament is followed by a dance from Hitler. There is the sense that Wagner, like Ludwig, is aware of a past and a future ethos in which his work and life exist.

As with the other films discussed, the opening clearly reveals the interests and the style of the film to come. The film as a whole is in two parts,” The Curse”, and “Once Upon a Time I Was”, with these further divided into separate chapters. In the opening prologue, a bare breasted, frizzy haired woman walks slowly towards us, her eyes closed, steam or smoke coming out of her open mouth. She appears to be in a cave or grotto but it is clearly painted and one dimensional. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey by Wagner sets a dream-like mood, but soon it is sharing the soundtrack with the jaunty “Ich bin die fesche Lola” from The Blue Angel.

The camera pulls back to reveal three Rhine Maidens, posed on rocks, as they speak. “I proclaim the curse of Lola Montez, the cast-off mistress of Ludwig I, the grandfather. Cursing all that follows, the incest of the parents, Max of Bavaria and Maria of Hohensollern. The birth of Ludwig, the last king of Bavaria. In the grip of royal madness, furor paranoicus bavariae” They prophesy the birth of a new era, the coming of a new proletariat. “King Ludwig has no chance.”

The Rhine Maidens leave their places to share in a bump-and-grind dance to an upbeat cabaret song, while the dwarf Wagner also joins in. At the same time, the hypnotic slow Siegried’s Rhine Journey continues as part of the sound mix. The Rhine Maidens continue their prophecy for Ludwig. “I proclaim his eternal life in the memory of his people….The finish. Environmental pollution. Pressure to produce! Crimes against nature.” And a small boy as Ludwig, with full beard, crown and court dress walks towards us pulling a stuffed swan on a rope behind him. He wipes a tear from his eyes with one of his white-gloved hands.

In less than five minutes, the scope and style of the film has been established. The interest is not biography, but the elements that make up a society, and the sense that these are largely pre-determined. Rather than there being specific elements (Church, Wagner, the people) that will be part of Ludwig’s life and interact with his, his fate is pre-ordained. Like a curse, his fate is inescapable. And the same applies to the German people.

In a key tableau scene, Ludwig’s ministers actively discuss Ludwig’s fate – he must go. Progress is needed for roads, automobiles – again, an anachronistic comment spreads the relevance of Ludwig’s fate. This scene clearly sees Ludwig’s death as a deliberate assassination, with the cover-up carefully planned. As well, the Prince Regent advises “We will seize His Majesty’s personal archives. Do not forget that no records, no advice, nothing from his architects, no records at all that could possibly suggest any serious work of Ludwig’s must be made known to the public. This would destroy his image as a king of kitsch. Ludwig can only remain harmless as a kitsch king. And most important of all, don’t make a martyr of him.”

The stylization of mise-en-scène in this tableau is typical of the film. There is virtually no movement; the players are grouped in a static composition, as though sitting for a painter recording an historic event for the nation’s art gallery. This means actions are frozen for the length of the scene, filmed with an unmoving camera, and without a cut. Costumes are realistic and colourful. At a first glance, the setting also looks elaborate and rich, but by now we are used to recognising this is an illusion. This has all been filmed in a studio with the setting back projected onto a screen. In some scenes, where the floor is visible, there is no set decoration such as carpeting. Rather, characters are simply posed on stands draped in red material.

`This distinctive visual style is also reflected in the sound mix. As the opening scene references Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Weimar Cabaret songs, Dietrich’s Blue Angel, in this “waxworks” tableau setting up the King’s death, we also hear snatches of the distinctive opening to The Shadow, a ubiquitous 1930’s radio serial. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” (5)

Although Syberberg’s detached Brechtian style would seem to remove the audience from having any emotional identification or sympathy for Ludwig, this isn’t the case. The very sense of Ludwig as a hapless victim of destiny is one factor that actually does draw our sympathy. But the style allows Syberberg to draw us into the drama in other unusual ways. At one point, Ludwig bequeaths all the future tourist income from his castles to Bavaria. A short time later, in the tableau scene covering Wagner’s death the back-projected image dissolves into film of modern day tourists being ushered through one of the castles, ogling at the architecture and artifacts of Ludwig’s home. The sense of invasion of Ludwig’s privacy is palpable.

In 1986 another German filmmaker, Christian Rischert, returned to Ludwig for Im Ozean der Sehnsucht (In the Ocean of Longing), made for Bayerischen Rundfunks (Bavarian Broadcasting). The format of a television documentary allows for speculation and reflection on Ludwig’s influences, and legacy not possible in a more narrative film. For example, if Ludwig is the last flicker of the concept of the Absolute Monarch, where did this idea come from, and how did these ideas take hold of Ludwig? Rischert looks back to Louis XIV and XV of France. Some of Ludwig’s castle building is clearly linked to his passion for the Sun King and Versailles.

As well, Rischert explores these strains of Ludwig finally being played out in Hitler. It is not fanciful to imagine that Ludwig and Hitler could have met if Ludwig had not died young. Ludwig would only have been sixty-nine at the start of World War I, and Rischert includes a photograph of a crowd in Munich celebrating that event. In that crowd, Hitler can be identified. The outcome of that war would create the environment in which Hitler could live out Ludwig’s dreams of genius and greatness.

Rischert is also able to be speculative about how Ludwig dies, raising questions about the investigation of Ludwig’s death including the autopsy. To start with there is a big question – how did such a physically strong man drown in such shallow water so close to the shore?

However, cinematically this is not very interesting. We do have a chance to make a detailed tourist’s visit to several of Ludwig’s castles, including a very interesting Royal crypt. But often we’re asked to simply look at the director and the film crew looking through the camera lens or wandering around the palaces. Of course, this throws attention back to the single-voiced often interestingly speculative commentary.

Or back to the other films where once again we make Ludwig endure the agony of his life. Unless we’re haunted by the final image of Syberberg’s Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King. There the child, bearded and dressed royally as Ludwig, shambles towards us, white gloves in hand. With a finger, he wipes the tears lining his face while looking squarely at us. In bold white letters superimposed on the screen, appears “Requiescat in Pace!” before dissolving into a maelstrom of blue toned smoke like from a volcano for the film’s final director credit. “Rest in Peace.” It becomes more than a blessing asked for Ludwig, but also a plea from Ludwig. “Let me rest in the peace I never had in life. Let me free from the curse of Lola Montez.”


  1. Perhaps only Queen Victoria is more omni-present, in this sense. She outlasted the nineteenth century, long enough for film of her 1901 funeral to be one of the earliest examples of news film, Since her death she has re-emerged on cinema screens in almost countless guises – Anna Neagle, Irene Dunne, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, Kathy Bates, Emily Blunt, even Peter Sellers are just some of the many who have impersonated her on screen.
  2. Herself the subject of Max Ophuls’ Lola Montès (1955)
  3. Title card quoted from Ludwig der Zweite
  4. Quoted in article by Aflons Maria Arns accompanying the Edition Filmmuseum DVD release.
  5. Orson Welles played in many episodes of The Shadow, but he did not say this famous line.

Sources of the Films

1. Ludwig II., König von Bayern, Edition Filmmuseum. Contains Ludwig der Zweite (Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, Wilhelm Dieterle, Germany, 1930), Das Schweigen am Starnbergersee (The Silence at the Starnberg Lake, Rolf Raffé, Germany, 1920) (Both films with musical accompaniment). Also, Im Ozean der Sehnsucht (In the Ocean of Longing, Christian Rischert, West Germany, 1986), presentation of Film & Kunst Gmbh in cooperation with the Munich Filmmuseum and the Goethe Institute, Munich. Booklet in German and English, English sub-titles. Region Code O.

2. Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1972), Koch Lorber USA. Running Time: 237 minutes. DVD region 1. Italian, with English sub-titles. At the time of its release a shorter version was often the only version available. This release is a recent restoration of the full original version. Region 1, on two DVDs.

3. Ludwig Requiem for a Virgin King. A Facets Video Release. Contains Ludwig – Requiem fur einen jungfraulichen König (Jurgen Syberberg, Germany, 1972) Source material is a somewhat damaged release print, but colour is vivid. German with English sub-titles. An all-zone NTSC/PAL DVD.

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).

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