Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved (1994): Reviews from Members of the American Beethoven Society

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved (1994): Reviews from Members of the American Beethoven Society

Article excerpt

Editor's note: When Bernard Rose's film was released on Beethoven's birthday last year, we decided that reviews from members of the American Beethoven Society might be a better gauge of the movie's success than reviews from music historians and film critics. The following seven reviews, some edited for length, support our contention. A bibliography of reviews which appeared in newspapers and magazines follows.

Dear editor:

The Immortal Beloved movie fuses the Immortal Beloved mystery with the story of nephew Karl and delivers an overwrought Beethoven soap opera. It takes enormous liberties with the facts and fails to compensate with an absorbing film. This massive production might be passed off as just another Hollywood extravaganza, "featuring Beethoven's greatest works" as we read on the CD cover except that millions of unwary viewers will assume the film is true, just as many now believe Mozart was poisoned by Salieri because of the "Amadeus" film. License has been taken in Immortal Beloved, but it is not poetic license. The film is pure pulp fiction. On the plus side, Gary Oldman does do a superb job as Beethoven.

But viewers should know that both the central premise of the film and the over-the-top conclusion are complete fabrications. Beethoven left his entire estate to his nephew, Karl, not to his Immortal Beloved. Schindler never embarked on a search to find the Immortal Beloved and proclaim her heir. I was under the impression Schindler thought Giulietta Guicciardi was the Immortal Beloved, one of the candidates he specifically rules out in the film.

Worse, in the film's breathless denouement, Johanna is revealed as the Immortal Beloved. Beethoven's sister-in-law is proclaimed the great, lost passion of his life, and he, Ludwig, is Karl's father. Note that the film posters, which claim "The untold love story of Ludwig van Beethoven," make no claims on truth. This twist is a preposterous 1990s sensationalization, apparently to give the story more punch and make the film sell. There may be a certain psychoanalytic logic that Beethoven was unconsciously obsessed with Johanna, but no one has ever seriously dubbed her Beethoven's lover and mother of his child.

Most egregious of all, the film makers, even as they claim to be inspired most by the music, have made hash of nearly a dozen major Beethoven masterpieces. That prominent musicians of the day are performing does not help. Their tapes have been altered drastically to heighten the purple story line. No piece or movement is performed from beginning to end. All sense of Beethoven's form is completely lost. The music is forced to serve the steamy program and to smooth edges between scenes.

Thus we have battlefield rapes accompanied by the Fifth Symphony, mad chases through formal gardens and nude embraces in racing carriages to the Eroica, tavern brawls with the Ninth Symphony as background, the brothers fighting to the thunderstorm movement of the Sixth Symphony, and so on.

For its own dramatic necessities, the film often strays from the facts. In itself, this is not so terrible and it depends on how the film hangs together. Nevertheless, I do not think Beethoven ever agreed to compose an oratorio for Metternich in order to win the legal battle for Karl, nor was Karl driven to suicide mainly because Beethoven pressured him to become a fortepiano virtuoso and perform in concert. Also, did Beethoven ever really say the agitation in the Kreutzer Sonata was the lover's struggle to reach his love?

Despite its failures, the film does succeed in several ways. Gary Oldman does look like the Beethoven one imagines from the many portraits and sculptures. These likenesses seem to have inspired many of the angles and much of the lightning. Oldman's combination of angst and tenderness was believable and poignant. It is a penetrating performance, and he manages to evoke convincingly Beethoven's misanthropy, humanity and complexity. …

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