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Unrequited love, isolation, depression, genius – the story of Beethoven is one that has captivated filmmakers for decades, inspiring them to commit their interpretations of the master to celluloid.
Everyone expects the story of an artist’s life to be passionate and tempestuous. But when it comes to the great composer who lost the very thing he needed the most – his hearing – there could hardly be better subject matter.
Here comes Beethoven – the lurching, wild genius with his furrowed brow and unkempt hair. Here are the myths about his foul temper, his cruelty towards those he loved, his failed romances, his misery at losing contact with the world and his retreat into himself. Despite all this, he created masterpiece after masterpiece. What a story! Triumph over adversity – with an impeccable soundtrack.
As soon as movies took off, Beethoven became a compelling presence on the big screen. The first star to commit the tortured Teuton to celluloid was the French actor Harry Baur. A thickset, lugubrious-looking man, Baur portrayed Beethoven as early as 1909 and returned again to the role almost three decades later in Un Grand Amour de Beethoven, directed by Abel Gance.
One of Germany’s best-known character actors, Fritz Kortner, also played Ludwig on more than one occasion. However, it was the veteran Ewald Balser who starred in what was described at the time as the definitive Beethoven biopic, Eroica (1949).
Then there was Erich von Stroheim, Oscar-nominated for Sunset Boulevard, who played the composer in Napoléon (1955). Beethoven also popped up from time to time in biographical movies of other composers – alongside Schubert in New Wine (1941) and with Mozart in Whom the Gods Love (1942). But none of these outings really did the old curmudgeon justice. It wasn’t until Gary Oldman [pictured] donned the shabby coat in Immortal Beloved (1994) that we began to see a Beethoven we could believe in and sympathise with.
Beethoven’s iconic status has also ensured his appearance in all manner of other movies. In Heavenly Music (1943), a bandleader arrives in heaven to be told that a committee will review his work and decide whether he is worthy of admittance. Guess who’s chairing the panel? Yes, Ludwig himself along with his chums Wagner, Brahms and other giants of music.
In Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Beethoven is one of the historical figures encountered by the time-travelling teenagers.
The anarchic John Belushi put on the Lud-wig in numerous episodes of Saturday Night Live, transmogrifying into a Germanic Ray Charles. And John Cleese – believe it or not – appeared as Beethoven in the ‘Archaeology Today’ episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus alongside playing Mrs Dreary Fat Boring Old Git. And then there’s the film franchise featuring the slobbering St Bernard – no connection but the name.
Apart from attempts to depict Beethoven the man on film, his works have played an important role in countless movies – Howards End, Mr Holland’s Opus and even George of the Jungle amongst them.
Disney didn’t do him justice in Fantasia visualising the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony as an art deco Greek idyll, replete with cavorting nymphs and cheeky cherubs.
More powerful and appropriate was the use of the Ninth Symphony in A Clockwork Orange and Dead Poets Society. In the case of Mozart, it’s hard to imagine any film surpassing Amadeus or telling us anything more about the great man. With Beethoven, though, it seems there’s no end to filmmakers’ fascination with or the enduring appeal of this irascible genius.
BEST BEETHOVEN ON FILM
Un Grand Amour de Beethoven (1937)
Directed by Abel Gance
Starring Harry Baur
Expressionistic and experimental, Gance’s Beethoven makes up with imagination what it lacks in historical accuracy. Harry Baur plays the composer as a depressed, ignored genius.
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Immortal Beloved (1994)
Directed by Bernard Rose
Starring Gary Oldman
Beethoven’s friend Schindler searches for the ‘Immortal Beloved’, to whom the composer has left everything. Oldman plays Beethoven.
Sony Pictures Home Ent. 74769
Directed by Simon Cellan Jones
Starring Ian Hart A dramatised account of the day that Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ was heard for the first time. “Everything is different from today,” said Haydn. Ian Hart is suitably cantankerous. The soundtrack is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
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Copying Beethoven (2006)
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Starring Ed Harris Ed Harris gives an intense portrayal of Beethoven who, facing the challenges of deafness and loneliness, recruits a music student (Diane Kruger) to transcribe his work. Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stephen Kovacevich perform on the soundtrack.
20th Century Fox 106505
In Search of Beethoven (2009)
Directed by Phil Grabsky
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson
A superlative documentary charting the course of Beethoven’s life, built around some 65 performances and more than 100 interviews, and including the composer’s own letters. Starring Lars Vogt and Janine Jansen among others.
Seventh Arts Prod. MC-1082