Journey with me now into the heart of one of the most enduring unsolved mysteries in history: the mystery of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved.”
Sometime after Ludwig van Beethoven’s death 1827, a letter was found among the composer’s personal effects – in the words of Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon, “…the only unalloyed love letter of his bachelor existence – an uncontrolled outburst of passionate feeling, exalted in tone, confused in feeling, and ridden with conflicting emotions.”  The letter was addressed to an unidentified woman who was obviously the great love of Beethoven’s life. The mystery of exactly who Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” was remains unsolved to this day.
Immortal Beloved, a marvelous film written and directed by Bernard Rose, seeks to explore the greatest riddle of Beethoven’s life. The film stars Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbé, Isabella Rossellini, Johanna ter Steege, Valeria Golino, and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Immortal Beloved has many attributes of a movie biography – a “biopic” – but it would be inaccurate to characterize this film solely as such. It is, at its heart, a fanciful flight of film fantasy with historical elements mixed in, wrapped in the brilliance of early nineteenth century costumes and sets, and presented to viewers in an attempt to get to the mind of Ludwig van Beethoven through his music.
The highly speculative story of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” begins immediately after the composer’s death and funeral. We find Beethoven’s brother Nikolaus van Beethoven (Gerard Horan) engaged in a heated argument over the composer’s estate with longtime Beethoven friend and personal secretary, Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé). Nikolaus pleads, cajoles, and threatens Schindler in an effort to convince him to give him his brother’s money. But Schindler refuses. He has just discovered his friend’s passionate missive addressed to the “Immortal Beloved…” along with a handwritten will bequeathing to this unidentified woman his entire estate!
Traveling throughout eastern Europe, Schindler begins a quest to unravel the mystery of who this woman is. In Schindler’s mind, one of two women is most likely to be Beethoven’s secret lover: either Countess Giulietta Guicciardi (played by Valeria Golino), or Countess Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini). From each of these aristocratic women, Schindler hears an accounting of Beethoven’s relationship with her.
From the young and impressionable Guicciardi: an admission that Beethoven considered her, at least for a while, the great love of her life. She tells of how she first became his student, then his lover, and finally – almost – his fiancee. But Guicciardi and her father make an egregious blunder, through which they discover Beethoven’s great secret: he is going deaf. Feeling betrayed, Beethoven flees from the Guicciardis in anger. The Countess marries another man within a month.
From the older, wiser, and more patrician Countess Erdody: A woman with something in common with Beethoven: a physical handicap. Her deep empathy with this torn man turns to love. She admits that she and Beethoven were lovers; that she loved him passionately; but that, for some reason, he never reciprocated in that love. Something… or someone… was coming between them.
That “someone” actually turns out to be two people: Beethoven’s sister-in-law Johanna (played by Johanna ter Steege), the widow of Beethoven’s younger brother Caspar (Christopher Fulford); and Caspar and Johanna’s son, Karl (Matthew North/Marco Hofschneider). Beethoven considers Johanna a woman of low morality, unworthy of his brother, and certainly unworthy to raise his nephew. After a lengthy and vicious court battle, Ludwig van Beethoven successfully wins permanent guardianship over Karl.
As Beethoven fights with Johanna for custody of Karl; as he begins a decade-long attempt to form the boy in his own image – to turn him into a great composer, like Beethoven’s father attempted, in his ham-fisted way, to do for him – the central question remains: who is the “Immortal Beloved??” Watch this excellent film to find out who Bernard Rose chooses as his candidate for the great love of Beethoven’s life!!
Immortal Beloved is certainly is a well acted, well written, and highly entertaining film! It’s imbued with wonderful performances from an excellent ensemble cast.
Gary Oldman is especially effective as the irascible, tortured soul that was Ludwig van Beethoven. He is simply marvelous at conveying the tremendous angst the composer must have felt at experiencing the loss of his hearing just as he reached the height of his power as a composer. (“How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others…”) A fact I did not know until I watched the Beloved Beethoven documentary is that Gary Oldman actually played all the Beethoven’s piano compositions in the film… a real testament to his ability as a musician as well as his extraordinary skill as an actor.
Jeroen Krabbé, a veteran of many films since the late 1970s, is also excellent as Anton Schindler. Krabbé imbues his character with tremendous dignity, no small feat considering that, historically, Schindler was always completely under Beethoven’s thumb, allowing his idol to treat him – to paraphrase Krabbé – “like dirt.” One of the most powerful scenes in the film occurs when Beethoven explains what music means to him. The revelation so unnerves Schindler that tears fill his eyes. Krabbé makes this scene seem so real that tears fill my eyes every time I watch it!
Golino, ter Steege, and Rossellini – the actors who play the three important women in Beethoven’s life – are uniformly superb in their roles. Each brings her own style of passion to the film, and each seems a perfect match – or foil – for Beethoven. I don’t think the casting director could have made any better choices to play the roles assigned to these talented and beautiful women.
Visually, Immortal Beloved is absolutely stunning. It was filmed in Prague and the surrounding countryside. The interior and exterior sets are mostly actual buildings in the Czech capital! As Rose points out, they were still a bit worn looking in 1994, and that added an aura of authenticity to the film. They are also gorgeous to see! Huge paintings fill gigantic halls; gold leaf encrusted, authentic nineteenth century furnishings abound. And the impeccably accurate costumes are simply brilliant.
The centerpiece of Immortal Beloved is, of course, Beethoven’s music. The movie’s score is absolutely brilliant! Bernard Rose selected some of the greatest classical artists of the day: the London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti conducting; violinist Emanuel Ax; cellist Yo-Yo Ma; and pianist Murray Perahia. All perform brilliantly throughout the film.
From the opening moments of the film to its very end can be heard excerpts from many of Beethoven’s greatest works… at the film’s outset: Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, the only mass Beethoven ever wrote, as the backdrop to the grand funeral and eulogy of the composer; and during other key points in the film: excerpts from Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, No. 2 “Moonlight;” Violin Concerto, Op. 61; Symphony No. 3, Op. 55 “Eroica;” Symphony No. 5, Op. 67; Violin Sonata No. 9, Op. 47 “Kreutzer;” Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 “Emperor;” and, at the great, shattering climax of the film: excerpts from the majestic fourth movement of Symphony No. 9, Op. 125 “Choral,” including Beethoven’s passionate paean to freedom, “Ode to Joy.” At every turn, the music is played with perfect precision and passion at just the right pace to help tell the story and help the viewer “get into the mind” of the composer.
It took a few viewings of Immortal Beloved for me to understand this movie for what it really is: a fantasy on the life of the man many consider to be the greatest composer of all time. The first time I watched the film (on VHS, in “pan-and-scan” format), I dismissed it as a load of utter nonsense. I’m a man who likes my history factual, and here I was watching a film with some attributes of a “biopic” and a whole lot of highly charged romantic conjecture. Add to that: I had just finished reading Maynard Solomon’s biography of the Maestro (entitled Beethoven, a book that generates a great deal of controversy on its own), in which he (Solomon) dissects the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved” and selects his own candidate based on the evidence he’s gathered. At the time, the movie just seemed too much for this amateur historian to take!!
When I viewed the movie again on DVD, in its original 2.35:1 widescreen format, I had the benefit of seeing the entire movie as the director intended. I was also able to watch the “special features” documentaries on the DVD, in which Bernard Rose admits that the film he’s created is a mixture of fact and fantasy… intended to “get at the mind of Beethoven through his music.” Now I understood!
And with that, the movie evolves from being that “load of utter nonsense” to something else: a brilliant speculation… a great “what if?” on the life of Beethoven. For me, it no longer had to be historically accurate. I now see Immortal Beloved as an entertaining detective story filled with an exciting new possibility to consider.
As Bernard Rose says in the Beloved Beethoven documentary: “I dare anyone to prove me wrong!”
 Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998, 1977. Second Edition.) pp. 207-208.
[2} Ibid., pp. 151-152. This is a quote from Beethoven’s famous “Heiligenstadt Testament,” written in 1802
Other Movie Reviews by Mike Powers: O Brother, Where Art Thou? ; Apollo 13 ; The 5 Best Movies I’ve Ever Detested ; M*A*S*H ; Gandhi ; Young Frankenstein ; The Apostle ; Amadeus ; Top 10 Movies of All Time – a “Movie Hall of Fame” ; Fiddler on the Roof ; Glory ; Top 10 Epic Movies of All Time ; Patton ; In the Name of the Father