Ludwig (1972)





Director:     Luchino Visconti. 

Starring:     Helmut Berger (Ludwig), Trevor Howard (Richard Wagner), Romy Schneider (Elisabeth of Austria),  Silvana Mangano (Cosima Von Buelow), Gert Fröbe (Father Hoffmann), Helmut Griem (Count Duerckheim), Izabella Telezynska (Queen Mother), Umberto Orsini (Count Von Holstein), John Moulder-Brown (Prince Otto), Sonia Petrovna (Sophie), Folker Bohnet (Joseph Kainz), Heinz Moog (Professor Gudden), Adriana Asti (Lila Von Buliowski), Marc Porel (Richard Hornig), Nora Ricci (Countess Ida Ferenczy), Mark Burns (Hans Von Buelow). 

Ludwig II, Mad King of Bavaria, friend of Wagner  & cousin of Sissi


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Ludwig, the King of Bavaria, speaks with the priest Father Hoffman. He talks about being a good ruler.

The Inquiry. Bavaria 1864. A government minister talks about having to do a painful inquiry about the King. Is he fit to rule? The minister says he is one of the very few ministers who has been in office without suspension.

Flashback. Ludwig meets with high officials. Present is Ludwig’s mother, the Queen Mother.

Back to the Inquiry. A government minister says that the ministers were astonished when at the first meeting with Ludwig the King told them that the most important thing is to find the composer Richard Wagner and convince him to move to Bavaria.

Flashback. Ludwig speaks with the minister in charge of finding and wooing Wagner. The report is that Wagner is going to Stuttgart. Ludwig is a bit perturbed. He asks: "Why did you sent the police to deliver the request?" The minister replies that perhaps he is not evading them, but rather his creditors. Ludwig says that he wants to visit Wagner personally and invite him to their country. The First Minister says he should go to Bad Ischl. Many royals will be there including the Tsarina. Ludwig replies that Wagner is more important.  In fact, he takes the position that he won’t leave until they find Wagner.

Ludwig meets the Empress of Austria, Elisabeth (better known as Sissi), at a circus practicing fancy tricks with a beautiful white horse. She is from Bavaria originally. Ludwig and she are cousins. The last time they saw each other was five years and six months ago. She missed Ludwig’s coronation. She says she didn’t want to see her relatives. She is bored with her marriage saying she has a husband looking for love elsewhere. And she has a mother-in-law that she has to win over – a hateful woman who even denied her the right to raise her children.

Sissi has been the Empress for ten years. She left and went to Madera, Corfu, Greece and Italy. She tells Ludwig that she is escaping: "They say I am eccentric." She hates Hofburg and is always getting heavily criticized. So now she does what she wants.

Ludwig is only nineteen years old. He tells Sissi that he doesn’t want to get married yet. Sissi bluntly asks him if it is true that he has never had sex with a woman. This make Ludwig very uncomfortable. He soon leaves.

At their next meeting, Sissi tells Ludwig: "Don’t marry the Tsarina." Ludwig says that she only has to speak and he will obey. He says he has to go to Munich. She replies that she wants him to go. Then she suggests that they go full moon riding at night.

Back to the Inquiry. Ludwig left for Bad Ischl after the arrival of Wagner in Munich. A minister says that Wagner was a profiteer.

Flashback. In Bavaria Wagner says that he needs the best of things around him in order to work. His opera "Tristan" is to be put on – the king has given him a free hand. He remembers how the King of Bavaria almost kneeled to him at their first meeting. He adds: "The King is an angel." His mistress Madame von Bulow is with Wagner. She tells him that she is having another baby. Wagner is very excited. He kisses her hand.

Sissi and Ludwig go night riding. She teases him asking: "Do you want to make Bavaria a nation of musicians?" Ludwig asks her if she is making fun of him. He asks her to promise never to abandon him. Sissis agrees. She adds that he is like a child. And a crazy one at that. Ludwig says that he will go to wherever Sissi is. She is often at her childhood home Possenhoffen. Ludwig asks her to return for the performance of "Tristan". They kiss.

Sophie greets her sister Sissi. The Empress tells Sophie that she will marry their cousin Ludwig. Sophie seems pleased with the idea. When Ludwig comes for Sissi he is told that she is sick and can’t ride with him. Ludwig is very irritated. He gives a verbal invitation to Sissi to dine with him in the evening.

Ludwig sees many members of Sissi’s family, including Karl-Teodor, Sophie, Matilde, Nene and Maximilian. The King of Bavaria gives some beautiful white flower to Sissi, but she merely gives the flowers to Sophie. Ludwig is again irritated, almost petulant. The Emperor of Austria, Franz, is coming a little later. Ludwig says he has to be in Munich. He leaves.

Back to the Inquiry. June 1865. "Tristan" cost the Bavarian State a fortune. And Sissi did not attend.

Flashback. Sissi returns to see Ludwig. She asks him about the total cost of Tristan. Sissi also mentions the "pathetic friendship" the King has with Wagner. The friendship gives Ludwig the illusion that he has created something important, just like she gives him the illusion of love. She then gives him some advice: marry Sophie. Ludwig objects: "But I only love you." She gives him more advise: forget the dreams of glory. Kings and Queens can’t really make much of an impact she argues.

Wagner tells Ludwig that the Germans don’t like his music. They attack him in the press. People even insult him on the street. The tcomposer shows Ludwig the plans to construct a 2,000 seat theatre. He adds: "But they’ll want a smaller one." Ludwig gives the impression that he will support the idea of the larger theatre. He tells the great composer that he is his hope, his consolation. He promises to put all his enthusiasm into the theatre.

Madame von Bulow tells Ludwig that Wagner suffers from anxiety and depression. And he is worried (even frightened) about the future. He ran up a great deal of debt. Ludwig responds that they will just have to make the composer serene.

Wagner comes to see Ludwig. He needs money to pay his debts. It is a great deal of money that is owed. Ludwig says that he will have to ask for a loan from the Treasury. And the loan needs to be approved.

Ludwig speaks to Pfistermeister. The King accuses him of using the police to spy on all his guests. Pfistermeister strikes back by saying that Wagner has been wasting Bavarian money; Madame von Bulow is nothing more than an "adulteress"; and her husband is an opportunist who uses his wife in order to continue being Wagner’s musical conductor. Ludwig shouts: "Slanders!" No, says the minister. It’s the truth.

Wagner, accompanied by von Bulow and his wife, comes in to see Ludwig. He has tears in his eyes. The composer talks about an article in the newspaper about Madame von Bulow being an adulteress. Von Bulow says that he has challenged the editor to a duel. But after hearing from Pfistermeister, Ludwig is a bit more skeptical of what Wagner tells him. Wagner requests that Ludwig write a kind of letter of recommendation for Mr. Von Bulow and have it published in the newspaper so that his reputation will be saved.  And Ludwig consents to write the letter.

Government minister Lutz gives Wagner a message: Leave Munich. Ludwig had no say in the matter.

Back to the Inquiry. A minister talks about the King’s mental instability. He has been this way ever since 1866 largely because of the war of that year. The King opposed the tendency to favor Austria over Prussia and this created a dangerous feeling of discontent among the people.

Flashback. Ludwig’s brother Prince Otto visits Ludwig. They hug. He soon will have to go back to the front. He tells his brother that they want him back in Munich. Then he says that they are losing the war. Ludwig comments: "I didn’t want this war." Otto is a mental mess. He complains that his eyes constantly sting and that his eyes are open even in sleep. Ludwig tells him to stay with him in Berg. Otto says he can’t. He leaves. Ludwig does his best to act as if there is no war.

Ludwig watches his young servant Volk go swimming naked. He intently watches the young man. The King scolds the fellow for not being at his post. The fellow says that he could not sleep. He comes out of the water and Ludwig drapes his cloak over the servant. (Hints of homosexuality).

Captain Durckheim, who has known the King from childhood, comes in to speak with Ludwig. He reports that they have been defeated: "We have surrendered." The war lasted only seven weeks. Ludwig asks if there is any news about his brother Otto. He adds: "Very soon he will be your king." The captain gets the impression that Ludwig has a very negative view of humanity. Ludwig says he wants to be free to look for happiness in the unreachable. The Captain responds with a long-winded speech about the King not being able to find happiness outside the rules and duties of men. The talk upsets Ludwig.

Almost in a huff, Ludwig arrives to speak hurriedly with his mother. He briefly tells her that he has decided to get married. She holds out her arms to him, but he does not move at all. He tells his mother to go immediately to Possenhofen. There he is to ask Dutchess Ludovica (Sissi’s mother) for the hand of Princess Sophie. He leaves without saying goodbye. His mother calls out to him, but he just ignores her.

The Queen Mother speaks to Father Hoffman about performing the marriage ceremony for her son and Sophie. He goes with her to ask for the hand of Sophie. The Father mentions that they will need a papal dispensation for the marriage.

Sissi comes to the engagement party. Ludwig has built a new residence, a castle. Sissi says she just dropped in for a moment; she has to travel to Zurich. (The woman always seems to flit between here and there and back again.)

Back to the Inquiry. A minister talks about Ludwig and his damn castles.

Flashback. The ministers arrange for a prostitute to visit Ludwig to help him prepare to make love to his future wife. The woman, who says she is a good actress, tells Ludwig that she heard he was very shy. She jumps on the bed in the bedroom. She gets off the bed, kisses Ludwig and then pushes him down onto the bed. They wrestle around for a bit, but as she keeps talking he gets made that the ministers are paying her for this. He complains that people are trying to ruin him. He gets off the bed. A little later he pushes the woman into the huge private bath and calls her a prostitute.

His present to Sophie is to meet Wagner. She looks very uncomfortable at the meeting. Wagner approves of her. But then Ludwig decides to postpone the wedding.

Back to the Inquiry. Ludwig’s servant Richard Hornig tells the ministers that he worked for ten years for the King. He replaced Volk. Richard tells the committee that he has never and will not betray the King’s confidence.

Flashback. A ship lands and Ludwig gets off to go to one his three castles. He meets Richard Hornig for the first time and asks him about his background. He then invites Richard to sleep at the castle. He accepts.

Sophie complains to Sissi about Ludwig. He has never called her Sophie, only Elsa. She loves him but he never goes out with her. Moreover, he rarely ever sees her and when he does he only says a few words. She says: "I feel dead – dead and buried."

Sissi urges her to go out on her own – travel. Show him you are independent. Sophie responds that Ludwig is just not interested in her. She adds: "He’s in love with you." Sissi slaps her in the face. She then makes up with Sophie. She tells Sophie that she can save him. She advises Sophie not to let him postpone the wedding again.

Ludwig talks with Father Hoffman and tells him that he does not want to marry Sophie. Father Hoffman objects that it will be a great scandal. And they will show him no mercy. Ludwig says: "I am deceiving her." She loves him today but tomorrow she will hate him, and he will hate her. The Father tells him not to be so arrogant. He has to be one of the people, not one who is different from the people. Otherwise, the people will hate him. After finishing the talk with Father Hoffman, Ludwig goes into a bedroom and kisses the sleeping Richard.

Back to the Inquiry. A minister says that the breaking of the engagement was the beginning of their misfortunes. The King lost all interest in State affairs. He was only concerned with his castles in which nobody would ever live. Otto is very ill and the Queen Mother preoccupies herself with the Catholic religion. When the Queen Mother tries to touch Otto, he avoids her hand. The King lives more and more in seclusion even though they are on the verge of war and Prussia is likely to win.

Flashback. Ludwig won’t see Father Hoffman who has a message about Otto and his illness. Ludwig is ill himself. He has bad teeth (and they get blacker and blacker with time). Count Holstein also wants to see the King. After waiting six hours, he decides to go in to the King anyway. It smells of chloroform in the bedroom. The King explains that he uses chloroform to get some sleep.

Count Holstein tells the King that he spoke to Chancellor Bismarck. He wants an immediate answer as to Bavaria joining with the larger German union. The Count tells Ludwig to copy out a letter written by Bismarck himself agreeing to join in the greater Germany, sign it and send it to the King of Prussia. But Ludwig is opposed to Bavaria joining the Confederation of the Allied States. He says the Bavarians will become slaves. And the new Germans could easily wipe out Bavaria whenever they wanted.

Otto is going crazy. Ludwig visits his brother in the asylum where he sees Otto struggling with two male staff members. He even bites the men. Ludwig sends everyone from the room in order to speak alone with Otto. Ludwig hugs his brother.

Wagner celebrates Christmas. His wife comes out to see her present: a small orchestra on the steps up to the second floor playing songs for them. He hugs his two young daughters.

Back to the Inquiry. A minister complains that only the Linderhof castle was occupied by Ludwig. In 1876 Wagner’s theatre in Bayreuth opened with his "Tetralogy". It was only possible through the funds from "our naive King." There was no money left to spend, but Ludwig kept spending anyway. Moreover, the king kept sending extravagant gifts to that handsome actor Kainz, who stayed three days at Linderhof.

Flashback. Kainz goes to visit Ludwig. Ludwig is a bit disappointed. Apparently he had expected Romeo from the play "Romeo and Juliet". Ludwig has the actor perform soliloquies from the various plays in which he performed. He then asks Kainz to go to Switzerland with him and then to Italy. He has Kainz perform more soliloquies. Ludwig tells him that he will become his best friend, the pillar of his theatre. But, Kainz has to be loyal to him. He says that Wagner betrayed him and that since then he has been looking for a real friend.

Kainz travels on a ship with Ludwig and his staff. The actor has finally tired of being dragged from place to place and being forced to recite constantly like a performing monkey. He finally puts his foot down and tells Ludwig that he cannot recite any more. He doesn’t like it. He’s exhausted. Ludwig only says: "Get some rest."

Back to the Inquiry. A minister complains that Kainz sold the almost daily letters from Ludwig for a high price. The letters, the minister says, are proof that the King is mentally incapable; a tyrant fulfilling his every fantasy.

Flashback.  Sissi arrives at the castle Neuschwanstein. Everywhere she sees black veils draped over different items. This is for the mourning for the death of Wagner. Sissi tells her companion that Ludwig’s association with Wagner was a long time ago. She is a bit disgusted with all the fuss over the musician. Sissi and her companion take a look around the castle. The companion laughs at the extravagant and immense hall. It’s a little too much is her opinion. Sissi is wowed by the opulence of it all.

Ludwig is informed that Sissi has arrived. He shouts: "I cannot see her. Go! Say that I am ill." He says that he does not want anybody’s pity. He wants his servant to also tell Sissi that the castle is all hers. She can stay in it as long as she wants. He is in a state of panic. As the door closes Ludwig cries: "Elisabeth! Elisabeth!"

The King is in a rathskellar or something similar. He is playing games with numerous half nude young men. Two of the men perform a traditional dance. The men gradually fall into a drunken sleep. Ludwig leaves in his sleigh.

Back to the Inquiry. Count von Holstein is in charge of the Inquiry. He says that the people still love Ludwig very much. Indeed, some people like a king that doesn’t govern. The now Colonel Durckheim is brought in to the committee. The committee will offer the regency of Bavaria to His Royal Highness Prince Luitpold in case it becomes necessary. Col. Durckheim says that some one or some ones deliberately kept Ludwig occupied with his follies because they approved of his extravagant spending. They knew this would lead to the King’s ruin.

The committee psychiatrist reads the findings. The King suffers from a mental disorder known as paranoia and therefore is mentally incapable of ruling.

The committee celebrates the end of the committee work. Their celebration, however, is cut short when one of the committee members sees a groom of Ludwig’s who has overheard their banter. They rush to the King hoping they can reach him before the groom does.

The groom reaches Ludwig and says that the committee of inquiry have come to arrest His Majesty. The committee soon arrives at the castle. Ludwig shouts to his royal guard to arrest all of them, have them flogged and then shot.

The committee men try to enter the castle explaining that the cabinet has deposed His Majesty. The guard at the door fires his weapon in the air and he threatens the committee. Finally, the committee is let in, but only to be arrested and all placed in one large room.

Ludwig wants the key to the tower. He is considering throwing himself off the tower. So some of his staff tell him that they don’t have the key.   The King tells them to find it. Colonel Durckheim arrives to speak with Ludwig. He says that they urgently need to tell the people to reject the cabinet’s decision. He will accompany Ludwig to Munich. There he can count on the loyalty of the army. But Ludwig adamantly says he will not go. He says he hates Munich. Durckheim is bewildered by Ludwig’s answer. Then the Colonel suggests that he go into exile in Tyrol. The King says he does not want to go to Tyrol. And he refuses to make an appeal to the people. He then tells Durckheim to get him some poison. The Colonel refuses saying that he came to save the King not to help him die.

The cabinet members talk about how they can regain their freedom. Colonel Durckheim comes in and they jump all over him to get some information about the King. Durckheim tells them that the King has ordered their release. The cabinet members gives a collective sigh of relief.  Durckheim tells the men to do what they need to do. He adds that Ludwig needs protection mainly from himself.

A different staff member finds the tower key and gives it to Ludwig. The King starts to walk to the tower. He is surrounded by guards and cabinet members. He tries to run but is caught.

The King arrives at Berg castle. They leave him alone in his room. The psychiatrist Dr. Gudden is his main contact. The King remains relatively quiet, but the one thing he keeps asking for is permission to walk on the grounds of the castle. Finally Dr. Gudden agrees to the walks. It is raining the night the two men take a walk under umbrellas.

When Dr. Gudden and the King are gone for more than one hour, the call goes out for everyone to start looking for the two walkers. Numerous searchers with torches look for the men. Two shots are heard. The searchers head toward the lake from where the sounds came. They tramp through the marsh at the edges of the lake. They find the dead body of Dr. Gudden in the water. A little more search turns up the dead body of the King.

The feeling is that the King wanted to commit suicide and had to kill Dr. Gudden in order to accomplish his mission.


This was a long movie of around three and three-quarters hour. And certain parts were dragged out, especially the last scenes. It could have been shortened. Otherwise it is a good movie. My wife and I had been watching a lot of films devoted to or dealing with Sissi, the Empress of Austria, and it was interesting to see Sissi interact with her crazy cousin in this movie. Romy Schneider was beautiful in the movie and gave a great performance. It was interesting watching a tragedy of a royal sinking farther and farther until he finally forces a crisis and a showdown in the government of Bavaria.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


Ludwig Friedrich Wilhelm II was king of Bavaria from 1864 until shortly before his death in 1886.   He is often called Mad King Ludwig, even though some think he was just as eccentric.  


1845 (August 25)  --  birth of Ludwig in Nymphenburg Palace (in today's suburban Munich).  His father was Maximilian II of Bavaria and his mother was Princess Marie of Prussia. His grandfather, Ludwig I of Bavaria, insisted his grandson be named after him.

1848  --  birth of his brother Otto. 

Ludwig was not close too either his mother or father, but was a bit closer to his grandfather who had come from a family of eccentrics.

Ludwig lived much of the time at Castle Hohenschwangau.  When he was older his best friend was Prince Paul Maximilian Lamoral of the wealthy Bavarian Thurn and Taxis family. With his friend Ludwig would stage scenes from Richard Wagner's operas. He also formed a life long friendship with his older cousin, Elizabeth, Duchess of Bavaria, later Elisabeth, Empress of Austria. (What they had in common was a love of nature and poetry.)

1863  --  at age 18, Ludwig lost his father.  The young and handsome Ludwig became the new king and was considered a popular king.

One of the first acts of his reign was to ask that composer Richard Wagner come to his court in Munich. Wagner was always on the run from his creditors.

1864 (May 5)  --  the 51-year-old Wagner meets Ludwig in Munich.  This was a saving grace to Wagner because Ludwig virtually saved Wagner's career.

1865  --  Wagner presents ‘’Tristan und Isolde’’ in Munich.  It is met with great acclaim.

(But the conservative people of Bavaria did not like the great composer.  His behavior was deemed too extravagant and notorious.  Six months after the presentation of the opera, Ludwig had to ask Wagner to leave the city.)

1866 (July-August) --  the Seven Weeks' War with Prussia.  Ludwig's Bavaria fought alongside Austria against Prussia. Prussia won and Ludwig had to accept a mutual defense treaty with Prussia.

1867 (January 22)  -- publication of  the engagement of Ludwig to Duchess Sophie in Bavaria, youngest sister of Sissi (Empress Elisabeth).   (Ludwig had repeatedly postponed the wedding date.)  Ludwig never called Sophie by her right name, but rather called her Elsa for a character from a Wagner opera.  Sophie later marries Ferdinand Philippe Marie, duc d'Alençon (1844–1910).

1868 – Ludwig commissions two of his castle projects: Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee, the latter being a replica of the central section of the palace at Versailles, France, but grander.

The King has a number of relationships with men.  Among the men are chief equerry and Master of the Horse, Richard Hornig; Hungarian theatre actor Josef Kainz; and courtier Alfons Weber.

1869  -- the King began keeping a diary which was later lost.

1869 – he finished the construction of the royal apartment in the Residenz Palace in Munich.

1869 – Ludwig oversaw the laying of the cornerstone for Neuschwanstein Castle.

1870  --  start of the Franco-Prussian War.   Prussia and her allies defeated France.  Now Prussia was so strong that it was able to unify all of the minor German kingdoms into one German Empire under the rule of King Wilhelm I of Prussia (now Emperor or Kaiser).

1870 (December)  --  Prussian Minister President Bismarck strong-armed Ludwig to write a letter endorsing the German Empire. With this Bavaria just became another state in the empire. Ludwig was so upset and disgusted that he promptly lost interest in Bavarian politics.  He turned his attention to building castles and creating a fantasy world for himself.  To the best of his ability, he avoided large public functions and formal social events.  Nevertheless, he remained popular with the people of Bavaria, often traveling in the countryside and talking to people. 

1872 – addition of an opulent conservatory on the roof of the Residenz Palace.

1872 – Ludwig began construction in Bayreuth of a special festival theater dedicated to the works of Wagner.

1878 – Linderhof Castle finished. It had an extravagant Venus grotto where opera singers performed while Ludwig was rowed in a shell-like boat on an underground lake. The King would take moonlit sleigh rides.

1878 – construction began on the Versailles-derived Herrenchiemsee

1880s – Ludwig planned construction of a new castle, a Byzantine palace and a Chinese summer palace in the Tyrol.

by 1885  --  start of the construction of the Falkenstein castle project.

by 1885 – the king was 14 million marks in debt and still planning even greater projects.  Becoming angry with the constant suggestions that he be more frugal, Ludwig wanted to sack the entire cabinet. 

The ministers struck first.  The conspirators decided to get rid of the king on the grounds that he was mentally ill and, therefore, unable to rule.  Ludwig’s uncle, Prince Luitpold, agrees to step in if necessary. 

1886 (January- March) – the conspirators assemble the Medical Report on Ludwig written by Count von Holnheim, who wanted Ludwig out. The Count had a whole list of examples of the King’s bizarre behaviors: pathological shyness; avoidance of state business; moonlit picnics with naked, dancing groomsmen; talking to imaginary people; sloppy and childish table manners; and abusive, sometimes violent treatment of his servants.  Bismarck approved of the ministers' plans. 

1886 (early June)  --  a panel of four psychiatrists, including Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, chief of the Munich Asylum, none of whom ever even met Ludwig, release a report saying the King suffers from paranoia. 

1886 (June 9)  --  a government commission arrives at Neuschwanstein to take the king into custody.  A servant tells Ludwig and the King gets the local police to hold back the commissioners. The police even held the commissioners for the night,. 

1886 (June 10)  --   Ludwig releases the commissioners. 

1886 (June 11)  --  Ludwig publishes a statement in the Bamberg newspaper for every loyal Bavarian to thwart the treason against him.  (The government seizes most of the copies.)  The King tries to escape.

1886 (June 12)  --    his escape foiled by the arrival of a second commission. King arrested and transported to Castle Berg on the shores of Lake Starnberg, south of Munich.  Luitpold is declared regent. 

1886 (June 13)  --  death of Ludwig.    He died under mysterious circumstances.  He had asked Dr. Gudden to go with him on a walk along the shore of Lake Starnmberg. Gudden agreed. It was Gudden himself who told the guards not to follow them. At 11:30 p.m. searchers found both the dead bodies of the King and Gudden floating in shallow water near the shore.


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