Copying Beethoven

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This is a film with lavish sets and costumes, set in Vienna , about the last years in the life of history’s greatest composer. We see his life and work through the eyes of a fellow composer who, though less talented, uniquely comprehends the extent of the composer’s genius.

Though it might be unfair to say that Copying Beethoven is copying Amadeus, its writers plundered unashamedly from Peter Schaffer’s ingenious script. Two scenes — one where Beethoven plays Anna’s composition on the piano and mocks it, and the other where he dictates his last work to her on his death bed — are stolen lock, stock and barrel. Therefore, although Agnieszka Holland’s Beethoven film has its own themes and tone, Amadeus is the inevitiable yardstick.

Whereas Amadeus was a ripping yarn, Copying Beethoven tries to be a complex character study. This tormented Ludwig, portrayed by an excessively muscular Ed Harris, is a more multi-dimensional than the giggling, cartoon Wolfgang played by Tom Hulce in Milos Forman’s film of Shaffer’s stage play, and the narrative, though equally ficticious, seems on paper more realistic adult fare. But outlandish as the premise of Amadeus might have been, the story was told with conviction and flair. Salieri had begged God to give him the talent to sing His praises in a manner befitting, but God has answered by making Salieri mediocre and choosing instead as His voice a vulgar buffoon in the form of Mozart. Salieri vows vengeance on both God and His vehicle, and hatches a plot that drives the story inexhorably on. The story in turn imparts its own meaning to several of Mozart’s important compositions.

Copying Beethoven lacks a story like this. Its central relationship is not one between professional rivals, but between the master and his de facto apprentice. There are basically two kinds of master-apprentice story. In one version, the apprentice is consumed by self doubt and struggles to find his own style, until one day he is called on by circumstances to step into the master’s shoes, and trimuphantly proves himself. The other is the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ version, where the pupil has great potential but lacks humility and wisdom, until the day when hubris leads into him into strife, and the master bails him out. But both of these tropes centre on the apprentice, whereas the challenge in a film about Beethoven was to use the master-apprentice device to shed light on the master’s own creative process, and the distinct nature of his art.

How might the writers have achieved this? They could perhaps have told a story about how Anna (played by Diane Kruger) courageously sticks by Ludwig despite his outrageous behaviour, and in reward gains a privileged insight into the workings of his mind, which in turn liberates her own creativity and boosts her composition to greatness. This might have been especially interesting if Anna Holz had been a real person, and it could have been executed even with a fictitious character. Indeed there was a hint of it in scene where Anna was reworking her little composition to give it a Beethovenian flavour. But to make this story succed, the writers would need to have shown us more of Anna’s own work and musical odyssey. They would need to have dared to tell us exactly which part of her piece Ludwig thought revealed promise, and shown him at work helping her to develop it.

Alternatively, it could have been about how the ageing Beethoven, mired in bitterness and cynicism, regains confidence in his own judgement and finds new inspiration through the intervention of a clever and generous girl. Having inspired a younger generation of artists with the bulk of his ouvre, he has earned himself, in the form of Anna, a reprieve from decline, enabling him to go that last step and create the transcendant works of his ‘third’ period. Well, again there were tantalizing hints of such a story. A chill ran down my spine when she explained to him why she changed the key in the opening bars when she transcribed the Fourth Movement. Would the whole film be a dialogue along those lines? Unfortunately there were no more moments like that. There is of course the memorable scene where Anna in effect conducts the premiere of the Choral Symphony from a crouching poistion below the rostrum — a conceit as charming as any of the other legends about that first performance — but there is nothing in the film to suggest that she had any impact on his actual creative development.

In the end we get no more than a jumble of these unexploited thematic possibilties, with none of them properly realised. Nor are we offered much insight into the secrets of the music, which is a terrible shame, since Amadeus showed how that can be done. Charged by the tension between his admiration for the work and his loathing for the man, Salieri’s commentaries on Mozart’s music are an integral part of the drama itself, neither artificial nor sentimental, transforming a music lesson into an opera in its own right.

All that Copying Beethoven has to offer on this score is a hackneyed interpretation of the composer’s spirituality and his deafness, and their role in his art. To make things worse, the film gives contradictory answers to both of these questions: Beethoven at one point sees himself as God’s humble creature blessed with the ability to read the Creator’s lips, while at another point he is God’s equal, locked with Him in a desperate aesthtic wrestling match; at one point he rails Salieri-like against God for depriving him, of all people, of hearing, while at another he credits his deafness for blocking out earthly distractions and freeing his chanel to the divine. The development of Beethoven’s views on religion have, as it happens, been a subject of endless speculation and debate. He did not attend Church, but he seems to have beleived in a personal God, qualifying him as something more than a deist and pantheist. This could have been a theme for the drama, conveyed through a dialogue with Anna (who is also an independent thinker when it comes to religion), but again it wasn’t pursued.

So what do we learn about Beethoven’s music? Toward the end when he first shows her his Grosse Fugue, and later on his death bed, Ludwig lectures Anna about his program to dispense with forms, keys, beginnings and endings, and so on, and to find eternity in the spaces between the notes — or something to that effect (I didn’t write it down). We discover that he is striving for an organic approach to beauty in contrast to the lifeless structures represented by the hapless Martin and his hideous bridge. But these lessons had the feel of a scriptwriter going through the motions. They needed to be shown, and shown intelligently, not just stated.

So it doesn’t tell us much about the art. Nor, it must be said, did the last Beethoven movie — Immortal Beloved with Gary Oldman. However, that was a different kind of film, a detective story surrounding an intriguing episode in Beethoven’s love life, teased out through flashbacks. Bernard Rose’s film could have been one about any famous artist with a passionate nature and a chaotic personal life; it didn’t pretend to say much about Beethoven’s art in particular. But it did have an engaging and coherent story, whereas as Copying Beethoven neither gets a story going nor gives us much insight into the art, let alone achieves both at once as Amadeus managed to do. At most it creates two strong characters and sets up an interesting dynamic between them.

The reviews have been generally unfavourable (‘Bring back the Saint Bernard’, was one appraisal that earned a guffaw from me). One of them recommended that Beethoven fans avoid the film. In fact the opposite advice applies. Only someone like me, who can never get enough Beethoven, would willingly put up with this bad script and direction for the sake of a nice selection of his music. Admirers of Hapsburg architecture can simultaneously take delight in the street scenes, shot in the enchanting town of Sopron in western Hungary.

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Paul Martin
14 years ago

I found the film hopelessly contrived. Anna Holz was fictitious and felt like a total creation for the purposes of popularism. She seemed completely out of place for the period (too feminist to be believable). I also felt her beauty was distracting from the otherwise excellent and authentic-looking visuals. She looked too ’21st century beautiful’.

Ed Harris is an excellent actor, and that showed in the film. Because his acting was better than what the film was, it highlighted the failings of the film. A similar example was Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York. It could be reasonably argued that each of these actors over-played their roles in the respective films.

I found the device of tracking shots with foreground items out of focus ridiculously repetitive and distracting. The music was great, but the visuals – cutting repetitively between Beethoven and Holz – were distracting. And I agree that there was a conceit to Anna’s conducting. Ultimately, I think the story fails to engage because the central relationship lacks verisimilitude.

harry clarke
14 years ago

The third review I’ve come across (the first two, word of mouth) and all found it disappointing. I am myself disappointed since I am a fan of Beethoven’s interesting, sad life and his strange genius in the face of many personal failures. I am waiting for a great movie on his life – I too didn’t enjoy Immortal Beloved. Give this one a miss, thanks.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Well it’s a nice still. Like a Vermeer!

Rob
Rob
14 years ago

Good post, James. I’ll wait for the DVD.