The four-hour uncut version of the late Luchino Visconti's 1972 "Ludwig" receives its Southern California premiere on the Z Channel (cable) Sunday at 2:30 p.m., repeating Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Even to those of us who were enthralled by the two shorter versions, the shortest of which was released theatrically in 1973, the complete "Ludwig" is a revelation, an unqualified masterpiece that ranks with the director's greatest work. (By the way, this is the Italian version, which has good English subtitles. Sadly, the sound track for the full-length English version is lost.)
Today "Mad" Ludwig of Bavaria is known for his lavish patronage of composer Richard Wagner and his Bayreuth Opera and for his three elaborate residences outside Munich, the mock medieval castle of Neuschwanstein perched picturesquely high on a mountain top, the small baroque palace and gardens of Linderhof and his unfinished replica of Versailles, Herrenchiemsee.
His extravagant ways, coupled with his increasing isolation, inevitably brought his government down upon him. An official declaration of his insanity was followed five days later by his mystery-shrouded death at 40 in 1886.
For Visconti, the delicately handsome Ludwig (Helmut Berger, in a truly heroic portrayal) was a figure of romantic tragedy to be presented on an exalted epic scale in settings of gloomy splendor and accompanied by great swaths of Wagner on the sound track.
As a homosexual artist of ancient Sicilian nobility, Visconti was clearly able to identify with the homosexual monarch who fell heir to the 700-year-old Wittelsbach throne at the age of 18 and eventually gathered the courage to accept his true nature and to break off his engagement to his cousin Sophie (Sonia Petrova), younger sister of his beloved Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider). This, however, marked his gradual retreat from a world he had always found "mean and unbearable" into a fantasy realm of his own creation.
Time has been kind to the pacifist Ludwig, whose architectural follies, at once grandiose and enchanting, have for a century been major tourist attractions for Bavaria, and to the opportunistic Wagner (the late Trevor Howard, who resembles the composer as strongly as Berger resembles Ludwig), one of the great glories of German culture.
(The iconoclastic and provocative West German film maker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, however, sees in both Ludwig's castles and palaces and in Wagner's operas the kind of artificial paradise which Hitler strived to achieve.)
In his infinitely moving and majestic film, Visconti leaves us agreeing with the grief-stricken Elisabeth, who declared: "The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps have spared him so terrible an end."
Cable TV watchers can also find the following evening movies playing this week:
Sweet Dreams (Cinemax at 7); River's Edge (SelecTV at 7); The Mystery of Picasso (Bravo at 8:30); The Big Chill (Cinemax at 9).
Betrayal (Movie Channel at 6); Letter to Brezhnev (SelecTV at 7); Stand by Me (HBO at 8); Pandora's Box (Bravo at 8:30).
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (A&E at 6); Comic Magazine (Bravo at 7:30); Outrageous Fortune (Showtime at 9); River's Edge (Cinemax at 9:30).
Samurai I (Bravo at 5); Samurai II (Bravo at 7); Blood Ties (Movie Channel Wednesday at 8); Samurai III (Bravo at 9).
Meet John Doe (SelecTV at 7); A Year of the Quiet Sun (Bravo at 8); Confidentially Yours (Bravo at 10).
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (WGN at 9:30).
Bad Company (Z at 6:30); Jules and Jim (Bravo at 9); Dirty Dancing (HBO at 9).