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Searching for Coherence in Dissonance

Much like the oft-mentioned fugue within the film itself, Louis van Beethoven is a bit of a mess.

Musician biopics are always a beast to contend with – and the film industry has, more often than not, especially struggled to capture the intriguing settings and delicious minutiae of classical composers’ lives, and appropriately convey them on screen. The trailer for Louis van Beethoven, dropping just before the film itself on December 15th, promised the film to be an exception – a lively, briskly-paced story of the ultimate enfant terrible of music history. Unfortunately, in spite of its best intentions, it proved to be just the rule. 

The production value itself, it has to be said, is admirable, starting with just the sheer amount of settings, ancillary characters and secondary plots the movie breezes through. The costuming (Veronika Albert) is impeccably done, true to character, and there is a sense of fun to it, especially, of course, when it comes to many gowns and Mozart’s stylish waistcoats (you’ll know which one we’re thinking of when you see it).

The cinematography is great as well, owing to the efforts of Arthur W. Ahrweiler. 

While most of the film is confined to strained salon bickerings and anteroom discussions, the few times the film leaves the morose bedchambers of its residents, and opens up to the world outside, allows us to take in the lovingly shot hills and plains of rural Rhinelands, or the lavishly decorated stage of the theatre in Bonn. More often than not, though, the film chooses functionality over visual spectacle – another issue that is pretty common in films dealing with the classical music world. 

Another plus for the film is its ensemble, the actors truly giving the material all they got – and the casting choices are *chef’s kiss* excellent.

All three Beethovens bring something of their own to the character. Anselm Bresgott is especially great as an adolescent, sensitive and self righteous Ludwig; Tobias Moretti inhabits his own morose character fully, cranking up the grumpy cat antics to eleven, and Colin Pütz is very charming, with just a hint of childish spite. Other great casting choices are Ulrich Noethen as the kindly Christian Gottlob Neefe and Manuel Ruby as a short-tempered, proud Mozart, putting a distinctive spin on the character most known as lovably childish. We do have a favourite: the stand-out star of the film is the actor who spends all of 2 seconds in the silent role of Haydn. Sadly, we couldn’t dig up his name from any of the cast lists across the interwebz. Who is he?? The world needs to know! 

Anselm Bresgott’s interpretation of the composer in his youth is pitch-perfect, down to his dreamy, slack-jawed ruminations on the piano. Photo source: betafilm

The main problem of the film is the choice to tell the story of Beethoven’s life through a series of distinct, loosely thematically related vignettes, rather than a comprehensive linear narrative. Sometimes, these vignettes are deftly interwoven – for example, in the sequence where Moretti has a teasing, genuinely joyful conversation with a certain housemaid, Constanze, whose name reminds him of his youthful partaking in The Abduction of Seraglio performances. 

Other times, the clunky cuts miss their cue, disorienting the viewer and losing sight of the themes the film sets out to explore. This is especially evident in its murky treatment of the perpetuation of cycles of abuse, demonstrated by Beethoven’s father in the very first scene of the film, and then carried on by the composer himself in his later years, in the way he treats his nephew Karl. 

Elsewhere, the film takes the opposite approach, beating us over the head with its leitmotifs like a badly tuned tuba – as is the case in the way it touches upon revolutionary ideas that were pulsating throughout Europe in Beethoven’s youth, with heavy-handed dialogue and characters serving as mouth-pieces for the writers. The short scenes and the quick cuts, lurching the viewer back and forth between the three stages of Beethoven’s life, additionally, neglect to inform one another and showcase the toll of the past on the present. Until the very end of the film, the sullen and volatile middle-aged Beethoven feels like a completely separate character, barely connected to his wide-eyed younger selves, who disaffectedly wander through streets of Bonn. 

Rondo lessons and revolutionary sessions. Photo source: betafilm

What this bricolage technique affects most greatly is the opportunity to deeply explore many of the compelling relationships Beethoven had with people in his life: his overbearing father, his brothers, poor long-suffering Karl, his earliest musical mentor Neefe. The few moments of dramatic intensity and emotional honesty that at times rise between characters (such as the point in the film when the composer is asked: “Why do you hurt those who love you?”) are too fleeting and far apart to carry much of an impact.

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Moretti simply breathes intensity and attitude, scowling and growling his way across the screen. Photo source: daserste.de

The film’s approach to the way it tells Beethoven’s story comes from an understandable and ambitious desire of those involved to fully give the composer justice, and address all of the potent themes that his life raises: toxic masculinity, the torture of the genius, the tragedy of losing his hearing, the political conflict of Germany and the world’s power turmoils of the time, and uh, yeah… the Immortal Beloved question. This is where things definitely take a turn for the worse. 

Midway through the film, the already unsteady narrative loses its way completely, and ventures far too much into Hollywood territory for our liking. Poetic licence is a great thing and it can, when handled with restraint, transform an okay biopic into a good one – think of Rocketman and the “Crocodile Rock” scene! There are a few of those imaginative moments in the film that are really enjoyable, adding a sense of fun to an otherwise bleak narrative, such as the unexpected jam session with Mozart or a swift punch to the nose of a snooty aristocrat.

But – the sudden shift of focus from Beethoven’s career, family and class struggles onto a hesitant, forbidden romance with a lady far above his station (delicately played by Caroline Hellwig – again, the ensemble is really great all around) just left us with a bad taste in our mouths. By the time Frau von Breuning (calculated, yet above all courteous Silke Bodenbender) has her villain scene, hysterically reminiscent of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s own villain act in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, there was nothing left to do but sigh, giggle, and accept the film for what it is, rather than what it promised to be.

I’m sorry – did you ask for this? I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask for this. Who asked for this? It’s a very pretty shot, though. Photo source: betafilm

The sheer amount of material to be explored in Beethoven’s life is huge, and the film’s largest problem is the belief it can somehow cover it all in a 2-hour ride. If those who called the shots had decided to take the path of a 6 or 10-part mini series, it would’ve definitely been more suited to the task at hand, fixing the pacing issues and allowing for a much more nuanced take on Beethoven’s polarizing figure – and we wouldn’t have minded watching that in the least! 

Louis van Beethoven is a lovingly crafted and superbly acted film, whose only, ultimate fault, lies in the fact that it strived to do too much, with, simply – just not enough time.