One of the cruelest ironies in all of history is that Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably one of the greatest musicians to walk the planet, went deaf and could not hear his own music. And yet despite that, at the end of his life when he couldn’t hear a single sound, he composed his ninth and final symphony which is considered by many the greatest piece of music ever written. A new film directed by Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”) takes a fictional look at the end of Beethoven’s life and the circumstances surrounding the premier performance of the Ninth Symphony.
It’s 1824 and only four days before the world premier in Vienna, Austria; Beethoven (Ed Harris) has only just finished it; the orchestra and chorus need sheet music. Since the xerox machine won’t be invented for another century-and-a-half, Beethoven’s publisher (Ralph Raich) requests the help of a copier—the best student from the local music school. That personal happens to be Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger). She is a fictional character and it is through her eyes that we enter the private world of the aged Beethoven.
At first there is much prejudice against Anna because she is a woman composer—early she is mistaken for a nurse, a maid, and a prostitute. Beethoven muses, “A woman composer is like a dog walking on his hind legs: it’s not done very well but you are amazed that it’s done at all.” But rather quickly, Beethoven gets over his prejudice and begins to treat Anna with respect. Or does he? The two develop an interesting and complex friendship and this becomes the crux of the film.
And what a great film it is. Powerful, emotional, sensual. The acting, particularly by Ed Harris, is amazing. He’s created a character who is so gifted and yet is so flawed. Unlike many of his musical predecessors, Beethoven was wildly lauded in his own lifetime and regarded as celebrity. Sort of the Mick Jagger or Tom Cruise of his age. Yet all that praise really spoiled him and he walked around as if he were God’s gift to the world. Maybe he was, but that certainly didn’t give him the right to treat others as if they were incompetent peons to be stepped on the instant they proved themselves less than the genius he was. Beethoven, as portrayed by Harris, struggles deeply with that tendency and often feels repentant after he treated someone so demeaningly. He also struggles with his frustration over going deaf. He blames God but he forgives God and views himself as God’s partner.
Anna is both repulsed by Beethoven and at the same time drawn to him. She greatly admires his talent and his fame and wants his feedback on her own work; at the same time, his flaws disgust her. Although she is the protagonist, she is not quite as interesting a character as Beethoven.
The cinematography is great; I was particularly impressed with the lighting, especially the interior night scenes. They really have the look of being lit by candle-light. If you look really close at the lighting, you can tell it’s not, but it’s a very good illusion—one of the best I’ve seen in period pieces set before the invention of electric lighting.
And the soundtrack—oh God! Well, in a movie about Beethoven the soundtrack had better be good. Such beautiful music fills the theatre and breathes life into the whole film. The greatest moment is during the performance of the Ninth Symphony when it enters the final movement and suddenly, without warning, the chorus bursts into those immortal words of Friedrich Schiller:
(Joy, thou glorious spark of heaven, Daughter of Elysium, We approach fire-drunk, Heavenly One, your shrine.) [Thanks to Wikipedia for the translation.] Beethoven had muttered under his breath that at that moment, music would change forever. And when you hear that rapturous sound, you know it’s true. When it ended, Beethoven couldn’t perceive the thunderous applause from the audience, but then Anna turns him around and he can see how loved the work is.
Naturally, a film like this begs comparison to the great “Amadeus.” Although not as great as Milos Forman’s award-winning film from 1984, there are many similarities and even some direct and indirect references to that film. And yet essentially they are two very different stories; this film is about making connections while “Amadeus” is about making enemies—out of both man and God. Someday someone will write an excellent essay comparing and contrasting the two films; but this is not that day.
There are a few flaws. I’m not bothered by the historical inaccuracies—it is, after all, a fictional story—but I was disappointed that two important subplots weren’t further developed and followed up. One includes Beethoven’s nephew (Joe Anderson) who borrows and steals money from his uncle who has blind love for him. The other involves Anna’s fiancé (Matthew Goode) who is an engineering student hoping to build a bridge across the Danube. Also, I thought the ending a bit enigmatic.
Despite these imperfections, I found it an excellent film and was quite moved by it. Ed Harris was so captivating, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got an Oscar nomination out of it. In my view, “Copying Beethoven” is definitely one of the better films I have seen this year.
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