Daily Foglifter: Beethoven put the following request in The Heiligenstadt Testament: “as soon as I am dead if Dr. Schmid is still alive ask him in my name to describe my malady and attach this document to the history of my illness so that so far as possible at least the world may become reconciled with me after my death. ”
When I wrote about my composer crush on Beethoven, many people suggested I watch the movie “Immortal Beloved.” I put it on my long list of movies I want to see before I die. Much to my surprise, my husband asked me if I wanted to watch it. I’m assuming the husband was willing to watch in the hopes it would be another “Amadeus,” only more gloomy. Well, “Amadeus” it was not, but I loved it all the same.
The primary criticisms of “Immortal Beloved” are its historical inaccuracy and the ridiculous theory of the identity of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved.” Valid criticism, but I personally don’t watch dramatic movies to gain historical knowledge. I watch to be entertained, distracted, and manipulated emotionally. “Immortal Beloved” did not disappoint.
The movie opens with Beethoven’s funeral. In attendance are multiple veiled women in various poses of grief and Beethoven’s brother, impatient for the composer’s will to be honored. Following the funeral he follows Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Felix Schindler, to his brother’s home to retrieve his inheritance. While searching in the mess of transcripts and other papers, they discover a new will which leaves Beethoven’s entire estate to his “Immortal Beloved.” A quest to find the woman commences. The rest of the movie is Schindler visiting various would-be “Beloveds” and trying to solve the puzzle. The eventual answer is surprising and utterly absurd, but it serves a purpose.
I read some reviews by people who are Beethoven experts and they weren’t flattering. One comment by a disgusted reviewer especially caught my eye.
“They turned Beethoven into a chick flick!”
Yes they did.
*Spoiler Alert* If you haven’t seen it and plan to, you might want to stop reading.
In the movie, Beethoven despises his sister-in-law, Therese, and he is absolutely horrible to her. He calls her names, tries to have her arrested, and takes his nephew away from her after her husband dies. It’s ugly. Beethoven did, indeed, hate his sister-in-law for whatever reason, and he did take away her son, claiming she was an unfit mother. But “Immortal Beloved” isn’t satisfied with this explanation and invents a convoluted and dubious back story.
Beethoven didn’t hate his sister-in-law, he loved her. Desperately. Prior to his brother’s marriage, he and Therese had an illicit affair. He was supposed to meet her in secret at a hotel, his carriage breaks down, and he sends the first of the “Immortal Beloved” letters. Therese is waiting in the hotel when the letter arrives. The proprietress of the hotel reads it and places it on her food tray, under the plate of food, and leaves it on the table. Therese comes over, takes one look at the food, becomes ill, and gets sick in the water basin. She walks to the window, stares into the thunderstorm, and a look of decision comes over her face. Beethoven is late, probably not coming, and she’s got morning sickness (no wonder he wanted the child! *eye roll* coupled with a satisfying and deeply affected sigh. I love this kind of stuff!). She decides she must leave and marry the first person she can find, Beethoven’s brother, Johann. She replaces the black veil over her face and flees the apartment, never seeing the letter.
Her departure is very dramatic. Beethoven arrives just as she is leaving and they narrowly miss each other on the staircase. Beethoven realizes she has gone and runs to the street, just missing her departing carriage. He then returns to the hotel room and trashes the place, throwing a chair out of the window. It was at this point my husband interjected, “Beethoven was the first rock star.” Isn’t he clever?
Anyway, this story comes out when Schindler, having figured out the identity of the Immortal Beloved, visits Therese. She also gives an account of her and Beethoven’s reconciliation before his death, rife with romantic details of further misunderstanding and unknown information. It’s not until the very end she is shown the letters and the full import of their last meeting is revealed to her. It’s very sad and tragically romantic. I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. I cried like the obedient chick I am, not caring a whit for historical accuracy or common sense. But now I’ve had time to think about it.
Beethoven was an interesting dude and his life had plenty of real drama in it, certainly enough to make an interesting film. So why on earth would they make this melodramatic movie full of blatant misinformation and wild conjecture?
Beethoven was unpleasant a lot of the time. He was known for violent outbursts, moodiness, and poor hygiene. Usually, this is attributed to bipolar disorder or autism. Judging by what I’ve read, these are valid theories. Valid, but not very romantic and romance is inseparable from Beethoven. He started the Romantic Movement, for goodness sake. Anguish is romantic. Clinical depression is not.
Isn’t it much nicer to believe his behavior resulted from losing the love of his life? Women will forgive almost anything if disappointed love is the root cause. A man actively hating the object of his affection because he thought he was rejected? (Deep sigh) His whole life destroyed because he can’t get over her? (Tears in eyes, threatening to run over) All a huge misunderstanding that would never have happened if she’d only seen the letter? (A small whimper) Significance of past events shown in flashback suddenly revealed? (Flat out bawling)
They absolutely turned Beethoven into a Chick Flick and it was AWESOME!
Seriously, “Immortal Beloved” did address the important events in Beethoven’s life. His abusive father, his hearing loss, his humiliation when it was discovered, the Napoleonic Wars, his struggle with illness, and his triumphant performance of “Ode to Joy” were all there. They could’ve been covered more in-depth, maybe in place of the gratuitous boob shots.
There were three things “Immortal Beloved” did perfectly. First, Gary Oldman as Beethoven was some fantastic casting, people. He was moody, violent, tender, and tragic, but never over the top. If anyone ever decides to make an actual biography of Beethoven, he should be the guy to play him again. Second was the soundtrack. All Beethoven, all the time. Third was the ending. Wrapping up the movie with “Ode to Joy” was a no-brainer and they managed to convey Beethoven’s musical philosophy quite well in the final scene.
All flaws aside, I honestly loved the movie. Just don’t expect an accurate historical rendering, as if that were possible anyway.
“…with joy I hasten towards death – if it comes before I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities it will still come too early for me despite my hard fate and I shall probably wish it had come later – but even then I am satisfied, will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will I shall meet thee bravely….” ~Ludwig van Beethoven in The Heiligenstadt Testament