Immortal Beloved (1994)


Untitled-1As Immortal Beloved opens it’s hard not to be reminded of Milos Forman’s 1984 classic Amadeus, about the life of Mozart and his unbreakable union with his music. Both movies are told via flashback and from the points of view of men driven away by the great masters but who are nevertheless kept in awe by their music. Their symphonies and concertos underscore the movies, and there is instantly a very grim melancholy that hovers over them. But as Immortal Beloved slowly unfolds, it becomes clear that it isn’t a mere copy of Amadeus but a completely different look at a completely different man.

The integrity of Bernard Rose’s story is certainly questionable, but given the circumstances of Beethoven’s life and legacy it isn’t difficult to accept a little fiction. Indeed, if we can enjoy Amadeus despite its historical inaccuracies, I see no reason why Immortal Beloved should succumb to trivial complaints. Much of its story is fabricated. Yes, it follows the general outline of Beethoven’s life, but matters concerning his women, his nephew, and much of his personal life are most likely not quite how they really happened. Rose’s story stands strong as it is because no one knows what really happened. The movie suggests quite firmly that Beethoven’s loss of hearing is a direct result of his father’s incessant beatings to the side of his head when he was little, but the truth is no one really knows how he became deaf.

Immortal Beloved’s plot is not a hundred miles removed from Citizen Kane’s, and Anton Schindler’s journalistic search for the intended recipient of Beethoven’s love letter — entitled “Immortal Beloved” — isn’t a hundred miles removed from Jerry Thompson’s quest to discover the meaning behind Charles Foster Kane’s dying word “Rosebud.”. But what sets it apart, besides the obvious difference in period, is Gary Oldman, and its music. Beethoven’s glorious music. It pervades every nook and cranny of this movie and enriches scenes and shots in a way that is reminiscent of Amadeus, but possibly better. Consider the scene in which Beethoven premieres his 9th Symphony to an eager crowd while linking its melodies and chorus to the complete anguish of his childhood. He thinks back to when he was running away from the clutches of his abusive father, through the woods and to a lake. As he removes his shirt and floats lifeless on the water’s surface, “Ode To Joy” thunders and the camera tracks out. He appears to be floating amidst the stars’ reflections. It is his ode to joy.

Gary Oldman plays the maestro, and while it is superfluous to criticize his physical likeness to the real man, he embodies his tormented genius superbly. His better scenes come towards the end, when Beethoven is already old and greyed and on the verge of insanity. He has by now burnt down every relationship, and his composing has taken a rather lengthy hiatus. Much of his life is spent battling his sister-in-law for custody of her son, Karl, and the situation turns so sour that we wonder why he began it in the first place. We find out later.

Oldman’s most touching scene is when he teaches a young Karl how to play his famous Fur Elise while reminiscing about his early days as a concert pianist when he was only 10 or 11. His father had hoped that he would be the next Mozart. Indeed, Beethoven himself wanted to be Mozart’s protege. But you can’t encourage something that isn’t there, and Beethoven had to learn the hard way that he was perhaps not as gifted as his idol.

Immortal Beloved has strong performances all round. Jeroen Krabbe plays Schindler, Beethoven’s confidant and supervisor, with a determined tenacity. Isabella Rossellini, Johanna ter Steege, and Valerina Golino play important women in Beethoven’s life, both real and fictitious. And Marco Hofschneider plays an adult Karl, broken and disillusioned by his uncle’s loose grip on reality — “I think he’s going mad”. They do well to support Oldman, who wanders through life knowing how good he is, but not how crazy he has become. And they observe his deterioration with sadness and helplessness.

Beethoven never wanted anyone to know that he was deaf. He often remained silent in front of others. People around him had to write on boards and paper, and it became an annoyance for everyone. For him, music existed in the heart and mind, and in the intangible recesses of one’s emotional foundations. “It is like hypnotism”, he tells Schindler. Rose must’ve kept these words close to his heart while he was writing this movie, because it is also hypnotic. And profoundly moving. I can’t help but wonder though: If I can see and hear and still be so moved by Classical music, what more for Beethoven, who was not only moved by it, but wrote it as well?

Best Moment | Ode To Joy. How magnificent it is. I also found the scene in which Beethoven becomes confused by his loss of hearing during a performance to be rather poignant.

Worst Moment | Nope.


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