Immortal Beloved (1994) is one of my favorite films. While I’ve been told by a Beethoven scholar that the facts aren’t correct in the film, that doesn’t stop me from liking it. How could it be otherwise?
Spoiler alert #1: I love this film, so don’t expect a balanced commentary from me. I think the film is worth the trouble of multiple viewings, rewarding anyone who bothers to watch it, particularly now as we remember Beethoven 250 years after his birth.
This is the film for which Gary Oldman really deserves his Oscar.
You can’t blame him for worrying about being typecast, recalling his brilliance as Lee Harvey Oswald or Winston Churchill.
Have you seen it? whatever you may think of its accuracy –using modern instruments rather than period ones, messing up some of the time-lines & facts in the interest of a romantic storyline—it’s a compelling combination of visuals & musical performance. I recall Jay Scott calling attention to that one tiny infelicity, that the music is all done with modern instruments via Georg Solti rather than anything utilizing a historically informed performance style. The one exception comes during a piano lesson when the instrument sounds dreadful. If I didn’t know better I’d say Solti’s goal was almost slanderous.
Other than this, I love this film without reservation, as I mentioned in spoiler alert #1.
Spoiler alert #2, I don’t like spoiling stories so I won’t spill the beans about this one. You’ll have to see it for yourself, and decide on its merits.
So let’s start with the premise.
Beethoven has just died. The opening is a powerful scene scored with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. We see the funeral procession that might include Franz Schubert; that is, we know Schubert was a pallbearer but we don’t get a good look at the men carrying the coffin.
Later we are listening to Anton Schindler, his admirer, sometime secretary & helper who has been going through his papers, which contain a mystery. A series of letters written in July 1812 were addressed to the “Unsterbliche Geliebte:”
the “immortal beloved”.
But who was this person? There are several possible candidates, women to whom the letters may have been addressed: but never sent. The film brings us closer to three possible candidates, one of whom is not taken seriously by the academics who know about such things (in other words, I’ve been told in private correspondence in no uncertain terms).
Beethoven died alone, a single man without any apparent survivors. The film would suggest that our assumptions are incorrect: that in fact Beethoven did father a son. I won’t reveal any more.
What I like about the film is how it makes me think about him in a new way. He is a person living with a big secret, namely his hearing loss, which he must conceal. I think Oldman does a remarkable job of making the character believable.
Directed & written by Bernard Rose, it has an interesting intersection with another Rose film, namely his adaptation of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (2008). Tolstoy’s story about marital infidelity might be the subtext for Rose’s earlier Immortal Beloved. Rose seems to believe that the music in Beethoven’s sonata (which we hear briefly in the earlier film) is telling the same sort of story we find in Tolstoy, that the passions of the sonata concern an ardent traveler trying to reach his beloved.
In passing we’re given one of the most perfect definitions of music (or any art for that matter) that I have ever encountered. See if you agree.