Monday, January 4, 2010

Movie Review: Immortal Beloved

Directed by Bernard Rose. 1994.

In the DVD commentary track to Immortal Beloved director Bernard Rose suggested the conundrum of the immortal beloved was a natural locus around which to structure a story of Beethoven. I am not entirely convinced of that observation and with the structure of Immortal Beloved, the film itself is more like a trip through the life of Beethoven featuring remembrances and reminiscing with the people who knew him. What makes the film succeed, though, is the significance it is able to demonstrate in the contrast between Beethoven’s stormy personal relationships and the degree to which he was cut off from virtually everyone, and the universality of his music.

Foremost among these characters is Beethoven’s factotum, Anton Felix Schindler, who revisits the women in the late Beethoven’s life in order to find the one the composer referred to in his last will as his immortal beloved and to whom he left his estate. Schindler comes off as the historical Schindler does in his biography of the composer (Beethoven As I Knew Him), i.e. as Beethoven’s conservator. Not just as the protector of Beethoven’s estate, though, but of his character and how he would be remembered. Sometimes Schindler comes across as noble, enduring abuse from his boss but remaining loyal to the composer because he understands the magnitude of Beethoven’s loneliness and genius. Other times he comes off an obsequious fool, hopelessly in awe of a man he permits to exist in his own moral world because of his infirmities.

In visiting the women of Beethoven’s life, Schindler discovers despite their tempestuous time with him, they remember him fondly or have at least made their peace with him. One woman, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, was one of his pupils. In order to receive her father’s consent to marry Beethoven, she had to prove to him Beethoven could still play and support her, so she tested him, offering Beethoven a supposedly empty room and a new English Broadwood on which to experiment in private. The girl and her father spied on Beethoven as he tested the piano playing the adagio of the C-sharp minor piano sonata*. When she reveals herself to him during his playing, he jumps up and stumbles away, shocked at the violation. Outraged, he storms out shouting, “It is terrible! Terrible to rob me in this way! Of my most treasured feelings!” Such is the significance of music to the composer, of his intensely personal ability and need to express himself through his compositions.

Another woman, countess Anna Marie Erdödy, first meets Beethoven at the disastrous debut performance of the Choral Fantasia at which his deafness was made evident to all. Outraged at the thoughtless and childish response of the audience to the composer’s affliction, she escorts him out and away from their contemptuous laughter. After she loses her young son in Napoleon’s invasion of Austria, Beethoven, growing still more deaf but wanting to console her, hands her some music and says, “We will speak through music.” He then begins the largo to the Op. 70 D major piano trio for her*.

Last Schindler visits Johanna Reiss, with whom Beethoven had the most intense and tumultuous relationship after she went on to marry his brother, Caspar Anton Carl Beethoven. Despite protracted legal proceedings in which Beethoven sought custody over her son and Beethoven’s violent denunciations of her, even before sharing the letter with her identifying her as his immortal beloved, Schindler discovers she has made peace with Beethoven, a peace she discovered after hearing his Ninth Symphony. She regrettably only takes note of the final movement, but nonetheless says the Ode to Joy made manifest Beethoven’s capacity for love so much she could no longer despise him.

Thus we see again, like with his relationships with the countesses and his gift of the bagatelle Für Elise to his nephew, Beethoven was most successful in communicating through music. As he said to Schindler, music’s unique power is to transport the listener into the mind of the composer, and when others were able to be transported, they were able to know Beethoven. The final act of Immortal Beloved dwells somewhat too much on the resolution of the mystery. Fair enough, perhaps, given the title and structure, but the film’s significance lies not so much in the resolution of that particular thread as with the two larger contrasting elements of Beethoven’s life, his personal relationships in general and his music. The concept of music being so pure a form of expression that, when it is brilliant, it can emotionally affect us the way it does is more significant than Ludwig and Johanna’s near-miss at the hotel. Nonetheless Immortal Beloved succeeds in showing us both the Beethoven that struggled his whole life to achieve a communion with those he loved, and also the one who succeeded in expressing himself to all humanity through his music.

* N.B. Regarding Dedications:

1) Op.27/2. Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor. 1800-1801. Dedicated to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi.
2) Op.70/1. Piano Trio in D major. 1808. Dedicated to Countess Anna Marie Erdödy.
3) WoO.59. Bagatelle for Piano in A minor: "Für Elise." 1810. Autograph missing, but "Elise" probably denotes a dedication to Therese Malfatti.

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