By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
(Originally published July 1, 1988)
It must’ve begun with the Romantics, our culture’s frantic overvaluation of youth. For living fast and dying pretty, musicians of the 20th century have nothing on the poets of the early 19th. Even the old stodge Wordsworth wrote his best stuff early in his career. His ode “Intimations of Immortality” claims that aging is a prison house: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” The Romantics were the first to mistrust everyone over 30 — and to turn that sentiment into art.
By coincidence, two filmmakers who first established themselves as cinematic voices of badass youth, Paul Morrissey and Pedro Almodóvar, have recently released films that take an emotion — love — seriously. Morrissey’s Beethoven’s Nephew (1986) tells the true story of the legendary composer’s insanely possessive love for his brother’s child. Almodóvar’s Matador explores the dark attachment between a former bullfighter and a woman lawyer who believe that living, loving and killing are identical activities, each necessary for the other. Coincidentally, too, these two films repudiate the cult of youth with both their subject matter and their austere style: Beethoven’s Nephew and Matador reflect a maturity far beyond any Morrissey or Almodóvar has previously shown.
Beethoven’s Nephew is the much better film. It’s set in Vienna during what’s considered the “final phase” of the composer’s life — the period between 1815 and 1827, between the time he gained custody of his nephew and his death. Most of the story is told as the flashback imagining of the 19-year-old nephew, Karl (Dietmar Prinz), as he sits in the drafty room where his uncle died of pneumonia the day before. Karl remembers his oppressive life with his famous uncle (Wolfgang Reichmann), in which he was forced to love music, physically torn from his mother, hounded at school, prevented from seeing girls (Ludwig considered all women prostitutes), and moved from lodging to lodging as Beethoven ran out of money, subjected to his uncle’s constant, unpredictable madness. Eventually, Karl is forced to take revenge, first on himself (he attempts suicide), then on the maestro.
The flashback conceit partially accounts for the film’s up-tempo, forge-ahead storytelling: Beethoven’s Nephew doesn’t have to slog along a straight timeline. Instead, the script explores its major themes — Karl’s sullen resentment, Beethoven’s hideous character, the beauty of the music — in a series of scenes that scintillate. They’re brief, pungent, pointed, mirroring the leap of a mind from indelible memory to indelible memory. The structure enables Morrissey to cover a lot of ground, a lot of time and a lot of characters. In that sense, the film is quite lavish; in another sense, though, Beethoven’s Nephew is spare and economical. It never obscures its major themes with asides or inconsequential detail. (This lavish economy is also reflected in Mario Garbuglia’s art direction, especially in his use of monumental Viennese exteriors.) Morrissey makes everything count — every hard-boiled egg, every carriage ride, every discussion about the sorry state of Beethoven’s finances.
Making everything count is characteristic of the way Morrissey works. Despite the thematic excesses of his earlier work — too much sex, blood, cynicism — he isn’t a wasteful director, because he’s never had the luxury of a real budget. (Andy Warhol probably spent more on bric-a-brac in three months than he spent on Heat, Trash, Dracula and Frankenstein combined.) In Beethoven’s Nephew, Morrissey’s usual frugality has grown into an almost classical control, an unprecedented rigor and balance. There’s very little frenzy here, very little camp, and it suits him. Morrissey has always (secretly) been the Puritan, a hater of the flesh, of sensual indulgence, of disorder of any kind. Only occasionally, when the humor fails to hit the right note or the camera leers a little too blatantly at the shapely Prinz, do we glimpse the Morrissey of Heat: Beethoven suddenly becomes Sylvia Miles, so to speak, and Karl, Joe Dallesandro. But that’s only occasionally.
More astonishing than Morrissey’s newfound restraint is the amount of genuine emotion that Beethoven’s Nephew generates. Until now, it was my impression that Morrissey’s idea of emotion was Udo Kier’s Baron von Frankenstein jumping on top of his own monster, sticking his dick into a stomach scar and saying something like, “You know nothing about life until you’ve fucked death in the gall bladder,” as he pumps himself into a sweat. In this scene, as in countless others like it, Morrissey isn’t parodying emotion, he’s saying that all emotion is a parody.
None of that’s left in Beethoven’s Nephew. Morrissey and Mathieu Carrière’s script treats the feelings of characters and the audience unironically (perhaps because the truth is so bizarre). After setting up the conventional emotional identifications, it shifts the identification radically from the nephew to Beethoven during the film. Initially, you’re sympathetic to Karl and his mother (Jane Birkin), who’re up against a patently insane, paranoid, vindictive individual. (This is all historically accurate: Morrissey even soft-pedals Beethoven somewhat to make him marginally palatable.) Slowly, your allegiance slides over to Beethoven, not because he gets nicer or saner — he doesn’t — but because, in the midst of everything, he really does love and need his nephew. Reichmann’s performance (one of the best of 1986 or 1988), combined with the seductive power of the music (notably the Ninth Symphony), places all the movie’s weight on the side of “true feeling,” however violently that true feeling expresses itself.
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