Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the best known composers of classical music. The first four notes of his Fifth Symphony may be the most familiar musical phrase in existence. We stand amazed at the music he composed yet never heard because of his deafness. But what of the person? Louis van Beethoven is a biographical film that gives us some insight into the person behind the music. (The title reflects the name that was used in his youth.) The film is coming on in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
The film moves back and forth between Beethoven’s final year and his early life in Bonn. The Beethoven we meet as an adult (played by Tobias Moretti) has long been deaf. He is sullen and demanding. He has come to his brother Johann’s home in Gneixendorf along with their nephew Karl (Peter Lewys Preston) after Karl’s attempted suicide. There Louis is in constant battle with everyone around him, especially Johann’s wife. This is the backdrop which leads to memories of his earlier life.
As a child in Bonn, Louis (Colin Pütz) was a musical prodigy. He is pushed by his father, who has dreams of him being a new Mozart. Through his father’s connections as a singer in the court of the Elector, the young Beethoven comes under the tutelage of other musicians. He also comes in contact with Tobias Pfeiffer (Sabin Tambrea), a local actor who rooms with the family. Pfeiffer brings radical ideas to the household, including the US Declaration of Independence and the poetry of Friedrich Schiller. (Schillers “Ode to Joy”, which will become the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, asserts the brotherhood of all men.)
As he becomes a young man, Louis (Anselm Bresgott) continues to grow as a musician. He also suffers the loss of his mother, which sends his father into despair and alcoholism. He comes under the patronage of the von Breuning family and falls in love with Eleonore von Breuning (Caroline Hellwig). But he is below the family’s social station and any match between them is forbidden.
The focus of this biographical film is not so much Beethoven’s music. In fact, we probably hear more Mozart than Beethoven. This is in large part because the film leaves out his time in Vienna during which he did most of his composing. Rather the film examines some of the forces at play that led to his music, especially ideas of egalitarianism. Pfeiffer’s (for the time) radical ideas mix with his disappointment at not being able to be with Eleonore to create a sense of rebelliousness. One of the ironies of his life is that although he rejected the stratification of society, he was dependent on the patronage of various courts for his musical career. The relationship with art and commercial success plays out through the film, especially in the sections with the adult Beethoven.
There is one musical theme worth noting. In a brief trip to Vienna as a young man, Beethoven meets his idol Mozart (who is rather dismissive of the young man). Hearing Beethoven improvising on piano, Mozart moves to a harpsichord and the two do something of a classical music version of “Duelling Banjos”.
The film is being released in virtual cinema through local arthouses and on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.