If you were to ask most culturally aware people what they know about this renowned composer, you might learn that he wrote his last symphony (which they will inevitably hum) while deaf, a feat perhaps as awesome as the composition of this work by a blind man of incomparable genius. A few might mention the wild mane of hair which would come to symbolize poor grooming but great thinking in our cerebral portraits of mad scientists; others, prone to that most American of obsessions, lists, might involve him in a mysterious brotherhood called the Three Bs. Still others might allude to his manic desire to control his destiny – but might miss the fact this can be said of any first-rate artist with ambition. Another motif arises in a novel reviewed earlier on these pages, that of the inability to change what must be ("Es muss sein"). There are countless other myths and romanticizations about Beethoven, and many more yet to be invented, but one theme, one Goethean red thread runs through them all, and that thread is fate itself. I have always believed that artists – be they composers, writers, or painters – are some of our most pronounced fatalists. To some degree this can be imputed to an indefatigable faith in their own abilities, that redemption and history will eventually look upon them with the same awe that Philistines and yes-men swoon over the popular contemporaries of every man and woman of genius. These contemporaries vary in skill, but they all put out an inferior product because they know that the most offensive thing one can do to another person is call him too stupid to understand. Beethoven was famous in his time, but he was also reviled by lesser lights for his superior ability and uncanny ease in his work. If Bach sublimated polyphony to a distant corner of the sky and Mozart rendered (with a few too many notes, said his, ahem, contemporaries) a simple quilt of sound enchanting, fresh, and delightful, it was Beethoven who remained the purist of all. He wrote about every poetic passion and his music supported his findings, from the Moonlight Sonata to Eroica to his final work, one of the recognizably magnificent pieces of music the world has ever heard. But he was also a man; and men, especially creative, moody and impassioned men, need love as much as they need oxygen. Which brings us to this lush tribute to the mysteries of the human soul.
We have seen this story line before, and we will see it again. Ludwig van Beethoven (Gary Oldman) has died, buried before thousands who sensed that the earth might never again see a musician of his caliber (they were right – with one exception). And so, in the weeks following his death, his secretary Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé) has the unenviable task of putting the master's papers in order. Unenviable not only because they are disorganized and unattended, but also because when an admired or loved one leaves us, we have little energy for filing or discarding mementos. Amidst what must have comprised hundreds of pages of unfinished music, Schindler comes across letters in Beethoven's hand that bequeath all the composer's earthly belongings – as well as something much dearer to him, his heart – to a certain female, named only as his "immortal beloved." As Beethoven's love affairs were neither too few to promote unambiguity nor too many to render such a determination impossible, Schindler takes it upon himself to discover the truth at all costs. The rest of the film follows Schindler, a resolute but artistically obtuse man, to a handful of European capitals for the company of some lovely candidates from society's upper echelon, all of whom could have released the fumes of Beethoven's final inspiration. Along the way we are subjected to the usual platitudes about working with or loving artists; the inherent envy within so many people towards artists of talent; and what it would mean for Europe to know Beethoven's inner thoughts. That a man so revered would give himself utterly to a single other human soul seems insufficient (this line of argumentation, by the way, has long since been the excuse of creative minds whose greatest challenges are faithfulness and commitment). But as a man without his music, Beethoven was quite ordinary and aware of the difficulties of forging a simple life bereft of the pretense of what he loved most. That is why when we do get to the most likely candidates, the whole production slips swiftly into the brackenish abyss of melodrama.
Biopics tend to be generous in their portion of fiction, and the identity of the beloved remains to this day a conundrum, a last piece of uncolonized territory in a huge expanse of personal information (further proof for why you should not try to learn history by watching movies). I suppose I should not be surprised that wave upon wave of enthusiasts would ultimately find Beethoven's personal desires more riveting than his professional ones, simply because, having experienced one and not the other, they can only relate to his life. For that reason we are bound to labor through documentaries on the "life" of an author spatchcocked with examples from his work, a reduction that ultimately has bolder, sacrilegious implications. Yet Immortal Beloved is salvaged from a ho-hum disgorgement of familiar topoi by the nature of the subject matter: we are still dealing with one of the greatest music geniuses to have walked the earth. And if, as this writer claimed, "a man of genius makes no mistakes," as "his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery," then Beethoven's gaffes would have not have led him to this decisive frame of mind. No, they were all part of the plan from the very beginning, and did I mention the film's end? No other scene in recent cinematic history features a finer constellation of music and film, a panoply of sense that can only be pulled off by a soundtrack of pure and utter bliss. Is that the main reason to watch the life of a man who, as a man, was as fallible as any of us, but as a musician at the height of his powers chilled our spine like few others? Portals of discovery, indeed.