Review: Copying Beethoven (2006)

Considering the prominence of Ludwig von Beethoven in the pantheon of classical music composers, it’s strange more movies haven’t been made about the man. There was Immortal Beloved (1994) starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven that received mostly good reviews. Other than that, there is not much. There is a 1936 German film, The Life and Loves of Beethoven and an even earlier German film (1927) Das Leben des Beethoven. Until 2006 when Copying Beethoven was released, there were more English movies about a dog named Beethoven than about the composer. Now at least they are tied.

Perhaps the dearth of movies was due to a composer who may have made great music but aside from going tragically deaf did not have a compelling personal story. By all accounts Beethoven was not a very pleasant man, which might have been due in part to his chronic stomach issues and his frustration at losing his hearing. Copying Beethoven (2006) is an attempt to gives us a realistic portrait of the man, but to do so the scriptwriter decided to introduce an attractive young woman, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) into Beethoven’s late life. Anna is a gifted woman musically, and ends up in Vienna when her sponsor sends her to Vienna to be a copyist for Beethoven. This is all quite interesting and spices up the movie considerably, but was also wholly implausible for 1824. This was an age when women had little in the way of rights. If they aspired to have a career it might be as a washwoman. Anna though comes from a family of pedigree and despite the odds aspires to be a famous composer. To be employed as a copyist for the famous but temperamental Beethoven is a great honor.

Beethoven (played by Ed Harris) quickly adapts to having this young woman in his life. It turns out it is much harder for Anna to adapt to the moody and quirky Ludwig von Beethoven than the other way around. By 1824 he was largely deaf. That would needless impair the movie, however, so the director makes him mostly deaf. Much of the time he wears a large tin device around his head to hear the piano better and when necessary funnels a cornucopia-like device into his ear to enable conversation. Beethoven also turns out to be a good lip reader. Harris portrays Beethoven as a frequently thoughtless man, yet with a simple natured sense of humor. He is oblivious to the effect of leaving his piss pots around the apartment in the presence of an attractive young woman or to the effects of his wash water spilled on the floors to the family living beneath him. In spite of these eccentricities and his often seen and undeservedly doted over nephew Karl (Joe Anderson), Anna is grateful to be in the presence of genius and tries to earn his trust.

Beethoven is on deadline as his most famous work, Symphony No. 9 is close to being premiered. He is very busy but trying to conduct at rehearsals becomes almost impossible, the orchestra he conducts cannot follow him. The symphony’s premier seems doomed. He arranges for an assistant conductor who cannot make it, leaving him in a bad spot. Would the lovely Anna help conduct the premier? Of course she will, discreetly from an orchestral pit, signaling the beat to Beethoven. The premier is a smashing success and feels achingly faithful to the symphony’s actual premier. (Opera houses were a lot smaller back then.)

Fortunately the movie does not end here. Beethoven rides the symphony’s great success but his fame quickly fades as a series of lesser works fail to inspire and have audiences leaving in the middle of performances in disgust. Beethoven’s health also continues to fade and with it what little social graces he has left. He is jealous of Anna’s boyfriend Martin (Matthew Goode), even though they hardly see each other because the virtuous Anna spends her nights cloistered in a convent.

The result is an uneven but generally well-directed and well-acted movie that, as designed, leaves you with mixed feelings about Beethoven. It’s hard not to have feelings for Anna, so young and beautiful, who is thrown into a situation she wants and needs but which is far outside of her experience. Beethoven is clueless about women’s emotional needs, but at least does not appear to be sexist and sees some talent in Anna, which he sometimes encourages and sometimes lampoons. At least as portrayed, Beethoven comes by it naturally because his nephew Karl is a despicable gambler who is not beyond pilfering from his uncle’s apartments to support his addiction.

Casting Harris as Beethoven was an unusual choice. He would have been one of my last choices for the role, but he does a decent job with the part. In my mind’s eye, Beethoven is the stern taskmaster seen in his frequent portraitures. Harris does not quite deliver a character of depth, except to portray his understanding and appreciation of music in mystical terms. Instead we get a bi-polar Beethoven, a condition many psychologists now believe he suffered from. Kruger is an excellent actress and does a great job with Anna’s measured performance. Despite his crassness, she wallows in his genius. We too get the measure of an imperfect man in the last years of life.

Copying Beethoven is probably worth nearly two hours of your time, although the movie fails to satisfy on some levels. Beethoven is portrayed as the musical genius he was, but Harris also shows us the common and imperfect man as well, and he is far less inspiring and the sort of man most of us would not want to know better.

3.0 points on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.0/4]

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