Release Date: 1994
Starring: Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini
Period of history in focus: early 19th century (specifically Beethoven’s life)
All right. So, I’m going to do what I can not to let this review devolve into madness. Many of problems with the movie stem from plot tropes that Hollywood loves and not all of them are historical accuracy complaints. I guess at heart this blog is truly about being a movie critic, but just a heads up. There might be yelling about women’s rights.
I chose Immortal Beloved because this romantic idea that swirls around Beethoven that has captured a lot of people’s attention. For anyone who doesn’t pay attention to centuries old gossip: upon Beethoven’s death in 1827 his buddy and first biographer, Anton Schindler discovered a little bundle of three letters – which are also confusingly kind of like one latter – addressed to an unknown woman. At one point Beethoven refers to her as his “Immortal Beloved” and he lays on this idea of romance pretty thick. If they were together life would be better, he hates being apart from her, etc. The letters have months and days on them but no year, so that has leaved subsequent historians to try and figure out when the letters were written, where they were written, and who the heck he was addressing.
Now, it has been suggested to me that movies about composers should focus more on their music. How did they learn, what motivated them to write, what was behind their compositions? I agree with this wholeheartedly. Say what you want about the atrocious historical fiction behind Amadeus (a movie I will review some day), but that movie focuses on Mozart’s obsession behind his music, what drove him to write certain ways, and what other people thought of what he wrote. In Immortal Beloved by contrast, we have what I like to think of as the Beethoven hat trick – there are other songs but there is special framing given to the Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, and Symphony No. 9. The motivation behind the first one is a woman, behind the second one is a nephew, and the third is…well. That’s where the movie falls apart.
Essentially, you can be assured that the movie devolves one man’s life into romanticized nonsense. That’s about all there is to it. The powerful moments that highlight his increasing deafness and isolation are immediately contradicted by a movie director deciding he has uncovered the real and edgy “facts” behind Beethoven’s secret love. Blech.
The movie begins with Beethoven’s death, and almost immediately lapses into made up facts to create drama. At this point director Bernard Rose is coming perilously close to treading on Mel Gibson’s toes with throwing “facts” at you right off the bat to help drive his plot forward.
Beethoven’s surviving brother declares that he deserves all of his dead brother’s money. After all, he has been named on the will and their other brother Kaspar is dead. Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, attempts to fend him off. There is no money. Calm down. Then, amazingly he discovers an envelope addressed to an “Immortal Beloved.” Inside said envelope we see that he has written a new will which bequeaths everything to this Immortal Beloved AND then he finds the letters. There may not be a recipient, but there is an address. The hotel in Karlsbad.
Beethoven’s will was written out to his nephew Karl, who he loved with a sort of tormented horror. So, his brother would have no right to complain about how he deserved money in the first place. This also means that the change to the will giving everything to his mysterious woman is completely made up. Furthermore, the letters had no address on them and some scholars think he might have written the letters at Teplitz instead.
If Schindler really had known for certain that the letters were written at Karlsbad, was able to visit that hotel and get an exact date and signature, as well as eye witness testimony from the woman who worked there, would this whole thing really still be such a big mystery? Historians still debate when he wrote the letters and where. If they had a signature, would they really not be able to figure it out? This trip and account of Beethoven’s hissy fit are pure fiction, I assure you.
Schindler finally decided to the real biography of Beethoven, that Giulietta (simplified to Julia for the film) must have been the woman. He based this off of some facts that are not complete crap. Beethoven and Giulietta were involved in some kind of relationship and might have even been engaged at some point. He also decided that the letters were dated in 1806. Then, Schindler learned that Giulietta had been married in 1806 and took the whole thing back. There are two points I am trying to make here: the argument for Giulietta is not bad, and if someone who actually knew Beethoven and wrote his first biography couldn’t figure it out, neither did the director of this movie.
As far as we can tell the relationship between Beethoven and Giulietta all fell apart because of their different social standings. It did not hinge on a bet to see whether or not Beethoven still knew how to play the piano. He seems to have acknowledged the fact their relationship didn’t have a future himself:
For two years, I have once again known some blissful moments, and for the first time I’ve had the sense that marriage can make someone happy; alas, she is not in the same social situation as I and, for the moment, I truly cannot marry.
This doesn’t rule her out completely. Maybe poor Beethoven was forced to pine after her for the rest of his life. It’s possible. The movie, however, must give us a definitive answer, and according to the film, Julia betrayed Beethoven by testing his deafness and he left her forever.
It’s also maybe worth mentioning that two of Giulietta’s cousins also appear in the film – Therese and Josephine – and that both of these women have also been mentioned in connection with the composer. I mostly wanted to point out that it’s highly unlikely these women tore off their dresses in public places to have sex with a musician. I highly doubt Beethoven was that much of a rock star. He was a little too creepy. And mean.
Countess Anna Marie Erdody
I’m a little perplexed as to why the movie goes this direction. In fact, it is at this point that the movie starts to veer of its point. Schindler goes to visit the previous countess Erdody in her native Hungary and we get the story of how she saved Beethoven from public humiliation and how he stayed at her place and how much she loved him. It is pretty quickly established that is not a contender and in the research done by musical historians she is not really a contender either. We know that she helped pay to keep Beethoven in Vienna when he threatened to leave. In this scheme of things, that’s about as good as I have. Her purpose in the movie really seems to be more of a frame for the audience to learn more about Beethoven’s relationship with his brother, Kasper, his brother’s wife, Johanna, and their son, Karl.
Here’s what I don’t understand: the entire frame of the movie is set up so that Schindler discovers who the Immortal Beloved is and the romance of Beethoven’s life. Then it goes off on a huge tangent about his hatred for Johanna and the custody battles to get control of his nephew Karl. All of this information is crucially important for a general biography – Karl plays a huge part in Beethoven’s later life. It is also crucial for the final conclusion of the film and the discernment of who Beethoven really loved. But at the time, it feels like the narrative is drifting off into a direction that has nothing to do with anything. It’s just bad movie making.
Kasper Beethoven died in 1515 and from then on Ludwig van Beethoven was obsessed with gaining control of his nephew and shaping into some sort of musical prodigy. He went in public multiple times and called Johanna a “whore”, questioning her sexual reputation, and therefore her fitness to be a mother. Once, he found out that she was seeing her son secretly and tried to make sure she couldn’t even accomplish that. He was completely awful to this woman and it’s likely that Karl had much more resentment against his uncle than is shown in the film. However, the basis of all of this is true.
The part where the audience is forced to accept bullshit as the truth comes at the end. Beethoven was really addressing Johanna. Not only that, but Karl is actually his illegitimate son. Congratulations, Bernard Rose! You have out fake paternity-ied Mel Gibson!
The movie’s contention is that they were supposed to meet at the Karlsbad hotel the night that Beethoven wrote the letter(s). He penned this on the road and sent a messenger out ahead of him, but Johanna didn’t see the letters because she was too ashamed and had to leave. The two characters literally pass each other on the stairs.
1) These letters were not written on the road and were not written as a sort of, “Hey! I’ll be running late, but I will be there. Wait for me, lover! Smooches, Louie.” Instead, they were written over the course of two days and at one point Beethoven apologizes they won’t reach her sooner because he didn’t realize the hotel mailing only went out two specific days of the week:
You are suffering, my dearest creature – only now have I learned that letters must be posted very early in the morning on Mondays-Thursdays- the only days on which the mail-coach goes from here to K.
That is not a man writing a frenzied love letter in the rain while his carriage has broken down. What about this:
My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning.
Yes, he is describing how he already arrived at the hotel and how that trip sucked. It’s the equivalent to a phone call once you finish a long car trip and complain about traffic. It has nothing to do with him racing to get there.
2) The way Beethoven treats Johanna makes no sense. It follows that he might feel spurned and hurt at what she had done. If we assume that she married Kaspar because of the missed meeting at the hotel, she would have been about six months pregnant (Karl was born three months after his parents married). She’s not showing in the movie, so maybe she’s still waiting around for Ludwig to make up his mind? After they split, Ludwig does everything in his power to be horrible to her. In real life, he said some of the nastiest things he could, in an effort to drag her reputation through the mud.
If he had really been in love with Johanna and secretly knew that Karl was really is son, did the man not have enough common sense to wait until his brother died to marry her? It might have been a little creepy for some people, but legal enough, and it would have solved all of his problems. Instead, he decided to abuse and insult her and take her son away from her. And after all that SHE FORGIVES HIM? No, no, no.
Not only is this illogical and a complete leap of fancy, but the message is awful. If a guy treats you like total crap because he feels hurt by something you did for years on end but then realizes that he did wrong then it’s okay to still be in love with him.
Johanna should have spit in his face and told him he was a prick right before he died.
Family Life and Music
There is a little more that I want to address about this film. After all, people should be interested in more about a composer than who he might have wanted to have sex with, right?
Beethoven inherited the family trade of music, because at the time that he was born, that’s how musicians were made. His grandfather was Kapellmeister (musical director of a court or church) in Bonn, as was his father. Beethoven was not a child prodigy to the extent that Mozart was, but it appears he was never humiliated in front of an audience through his poor playing and then beaten senseless by his father. In fact, he gave his first concert on 8, and based off his musical promise, began receiving more musical instruction than just his father.
Beethoven’s dad was a drunk, but by the time he had gotten really awful, his oldest son was basically supporting the family. It is not out of the realm of possibility that his father beat him or some of his siblings, but the presence and importance of this might be a little too much.
I do not understand the decision to make the Ninth Symphony an ode to Beethoven escaping the oppression of his father. The movie is supposed to be about the woman he loves, then inexplicably morphs into his love for his nephew, and the triumphant note is really about his childhood? It makes no sense!
One of the major faults this movie makes concerns Beethoven’s composition. Music was his life. When he began to go deaf, the man considered suicide, but could not bear to leave his music unwritten:
Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.
This is a man deeply dedicated to his craft. He loves music. In the film, music largely serves to frame his biography. He wrote this musical piece for Julia, and that for Karl. He explains to Schindler that one of his pieces is about a man trying to reach a woman in the rain. Art is not entirely biographical. Beethoven’s music might tell beautiful stories and hard ones too, but they do not all reveal who he talked to or things that he did. The music helps reveal what he was, what he believed was art, what he believed music should be. Writing this off as dedications and an abusive father seems entirely unfair to a man who practically created the romantic movement.
For the record, the Ninth was based off a poem written by Friedrich Schiller.
One last fact of note: Beethoven died during a thunderstorm. This might not be fitting with the tone of the movie, but he fell into a coma several days before his death. On the night of a huge thunderstorm, he woke up, shook his fist at the sky, and died. This is the most hardcore way to die ever if you are not a superhero.
In conclusion: read a biography of Beethoven while listening to a couple of his compositions. Unless you want to see Gary Oldman’s awesome hair. Then watch the movie.
Philippe A. Autexier. Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. This biography is short and to the point. You will get a general overview of the man’s life and some about his musical background as well. Contains documents in the back, including those letters.
Maynard Solomon. Beethoven. A more complete biography. Solomon draws a conclusion about the Immortal Beloved that other scholars have turned their noses up at, but he does give a thorough and complete look into the man’s life and music.
Biography.com. Ludwig van Beethoven. Another overall summary of Beethoven’s life. Good for anyone who doesn’t want to visit a library. http://www.biography.com/people/ludwig-van-beethoven-9204862
If you would like a full transcription of the Immortal Beloved letters to check it out yourself: http://www.all-about-beethoven.com/immortalbeloved.html
FOR NEXT TIME:
Shakespeare and the new film Anonymous!