The silent epic and international cinema legend Abel Gance is most celebrated for his sweeping and pioneering biography masterpiece Napoleon
. But this touching and tortured document of the legendary Beethoven's creative genius deserves equal tribute and attention. Like Napoleon
is Gance's portrait of a great mind, a giant of history, here crafted as a romantic vision of the artist. The film chronicles the years of Beethoven's greatest successes and his struggles against overwhelming adversity--poverty, the onset of deafness and his unrequited passion for his "Immortal Beloved." Writer/director Gance conducts a symphony of images set to an expressionistic score, depicting not only the events but the spirit of the composer's life. 117 minutes.
If one were to gather the hundreds of books written about Ludwig van Beethoven
, sift through each with a fine-tooth comb, and extract every simple mistake, wild speculation, and outright falsehood, the result would still be nowhere near as fabulous and artificial as this 1936 biopic, which rewrites the composer's life story into a throbbingly melodramatic tale of genius ignored and love unrequited. Director Abel Gance, best known for his expansive silent classic Napoleon
, wasn't interested in the truth of Beethoven's life, but instead the romantic ideal of a great man tormented by history; Gance's Beethoven is merely a variation of the filmmaker's beloved Bonaparte, triumphant yet scorned by his inferiors in the artistic realm rather than the political. (Needless to say, among the film's many omissions is Beethoven's bitter rededication of the "Eroica" Symphony.)
Beginning where every portrait of Beethoven the man must, with the identification of the Immortal Beloved, the film nominates (wrongly) Giulietta Gallenberg, née Guicciardi, reconstructing their brief passion as a lifelong obsession. During each of Beethoven's struggles--with love, poverty, deafness--thunder cracks against the sky and the opening notes of the Fifth burst onto the soundtrack to punctuate the action. Meet the film on its own novelette-like terms, however, and it can be quite moving, not least for the magnificent presence of Harry Baur in the lead, who captures to perfection the tortured nobility the film foists upon its protagonist. Baur's conception is as outsized as Gance's, but also gentler and less sentimental; he humanizes what could have been a treacly salute to a marble statue. An unusual final credit places the actor's name alongside the director's, a touching admission by Gance at how indebted his film was to its star. --Bruce Reid