Warning: This movie is extraordinarily susceptible to being spoiled.
It is very similar to Citizen Kane in this regard. Please consider
not reading past the 15th paragraph (there will be a warning) until
you have seen the movie.
Immortal Beloved is a biographical account of Ludwig van Beethoven's
) life and loves, in the form of a fictionalized treatment
of an enigmatic letter to his "immortal beloved" that was found after
his death. (The letter, the mystery about the addressee's identity,
and a great many other aspects of Beethoven's life, are treated
reasonably authentically in the movie. But the identity of the
"immortal beloved" indicated in the movie should be regarded as
The movie is structured like Citizen Kane---a mystery is revealed upon
Beethoven's death, and the movie is a long series of flashbacks
through Beethoven's life as his secretary and confidant Anton
Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé
) scours the countryside attempting to solve
the matter. The mystery is the discovery of an unofficial will
found among Beethoven's papers upon his death, bequeathing all
his property to an unnamed "immortal beloved", along with a passionate
love letter to her. Schindler vows to find out who she was, and thus
carry out Beethoven's last wish, keenly aware of how society had
failed Beethoven throughout his life. He is opposed in this by
Beethoven's surviving brother Johann (Gerard Horan
) and Johann's wife
Therese (Alexandra Pigg
), who feel that the estate should be theirs,
based on an earlier official will, and as compensation for the abuse
they endured from Ludwig.
Schindler (Anton Schindler really was Beethoven's secretary and
assistant, and apparently really was as sycophantic in real life as
his depiction in the movie) sets out for the hotel in Karlsbad where
the letter was sent. During this journey, a voice-over recites part
of the letter, while the slow 2nd movement of Beethoven's 5th
("Emperor") piano concerto plays. The letter explains his ardent love
for this woman, while explaining that he has been delayed, by a
serious coach breakdown, from seeing her.
The proprietress, Frau Streicher (Miriam Margolyes
), tells him that
Beethoven had indeed come there many years before to stay with a woman
who had checked in earlier. This woman did not give her name, and
covered herself in a veil at all times. A letter from Beethoven
arrived, and she took it to the room, along with a meal, after opening
it to find out what room it should go to---"Immortal beloved" was not
an adequate address. The woman apparently did not like the letter,
because she checked out shortly thereafter. Then Beethoven arrived,
saw that the woman had left, and went on a rampage, destroying
furniture and breaking a window. An extensive search of the hotel's
past registry books yields the page on which the woman signed in, but
the name is illegible. Frau Streicher lets Schindler tear out the page
and take it with him.
Schindler then goes to see various women who were known to have been
personally involved with Beethoven, beginning with Giulietta
Guicciardi (Valeria Golino
). She tells Schindler of her fascination
with Beethoven, her desire to marry him, and his rather eccentric and
boorish behavior. Because Beethoven was rumored to be extremely shy
about performing on the piano (the real reason was his approaching
deafness) she arranges to have a very new and expensive piano brought
to the house, and she tells Beethoven that everyone will be away and
he can try it out. He does so, playing the Moonlight Sonata while his
head is pressed against the top of the piano so that he can hear it as
well as possible. Giulietta, along with her father
), have been hiding an an adjacent room. She is so
moved by his playing that she comes out of hiding, walks up to
Beethoven without his seeing her, and touches him. Beethoven recoils
in horror, shouting "It is terrible to rob me in this way of my most
treasured feelings". It soon becomes clear to Giulietta and her
father that Beethoven is deaf. Shortly afterwards, Giulietta married
Count Gallenburg, another composer.
Schindler returns to Vienna and runs into Ludwig's brother Johann, who
reminds him that Ludwig cared only for himself, and wanted to control
other people to keep them serving him. As a case in point, when the
third brother Caspar (Christopher Fulford
) (who had died earlier) was
to marry Johanna Reiss (Johanna ter Steege
), Ludwig expressed his
strong disdain for the union, making extremely crude statements: "By
all means, copulate with her. But marriage? Every farmhand in the
region has enjoyed her for free. Why should you pay more?" Just
after the marriage, Ludwig sends the police to their apartment,
confronting them in bed and commanding the police to "Arrest that
whore". Caspar shows the marriage license, and also explains that
Johanna is pregnant. Ludwig becomes bitterly estranged from Caspar
and Johanna for years after that. Johann explains to Schindler that
Ludwig was just as strongly opposed to his own marriage to Therese,
and just as abusive to them.
Schindler's travels then take him to Hungary for a meeting with
Countess Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini
), who fills in a lot more
of the history. She had been present during the disastrous premiere
of the Emperor Concerto, in which Beethoven's deafness made him unable
to keep the orchestra together, and hence the world first truly
learned of his malady. Anna took him in at her palace, and they lived
together for a few years. She said that those were probably the
happiest years of both of their lives, that she loved him, but that
Beethoven did not seem to truly love her. These years included the
horrifying siege of Vienna by Napoleon's troops, during which one of
Anna's three children was killed.
Schindler himself takes up the flashback narrative at this point,
continuing his conversation with Countess Erdody. He describes how
he, as a budding violinist, first met Beethoven at a rehearsal of the
"Kreutzer" sonata. And how Beethoven explained his ideas of the
meaning of music, and that this particular piece is about a person
trying to reach his lover by coach, but the coach broke down in
bad weather, causing great despair. Schindler did not realize at the
time that this was what would be described in the "immortal beloved"
During this period, Beethoven became convinced that his brother Caspar
had taken some of his manuscripts, and went to confront him. They
hadn't spoken in 8 years, and things started off well, until Ludwig
started forcibly going through Caspar's papers, and also referring to
Johanna as "this foul slut you call a wife." A violent fight ensues,
to the horror of Schindler, Johanna, and their 8-year-old son Karl
). When Ludwig leaves, Caspar is profusely coughing
up blood, and in fact dies a few months later. At the interment,
Ludwig remarks to Shindler that Johanna seems to be seeing another man
already. "My brother's bed is not yet cold and he is climbing in."
Ludwig then takes legal action against Johanna, to take custody of
Karl, on the grounds that she is of low moral character. Just before
the police take Karl away, Johanna tells Karl not to believe anything
that Ludwig says about her; it is all lies.
Karl stays with Ludwig, who plans to make Karl into a great pianist.
Ludwig relates to Karl that his own father had tried, unssuccessfully,
to do the same with him, to make him the new Mozart. After Ludwig had
failed at this, the flashback shows his father administering a brutal
thrashing, and strongly suggesting that Ludwig's hearing loss had been
caused by this.
A further legal battle ensues because Ludwig suspects that Johanna is
bribing people to allow her to visit Karl in secret. There is a highly
public trial, and Beethoven even bribes Metternich (Barry Humphries
by promising to write an oratorio for him, a promise that he never
kept. Metternich intercedes on Beethoven's behalf, and he wins the case.
Beethoven's squalid living style and generally disagreeable character
are depicted at length. Karl, a young adult at this point
), had been scheduled by Ludwig to give a public
piano recital, and he tells Schindler that he is "at the end of his
tether." He knows that he is a very mediocre pianist, but Ludwig, due
to his deafness, can not, or will not, accept that. He also relates
Ludwig's increasingly bizarre behavior, including incessantly singing
some tune, claiming that is the motif of a grand symphony. Karl sings
it (badly)---it's the main choral theme (Ode to Joy) of the 9th symphony.
Schindler and Karl both go to Ludwig to talk him out of his plan.
Beethoven verbally abuses Schindler, telling him to get out.
Karl, truly at the end of his tether at this point, takes a dueling
pistol and attempts to kill himself. He is a very bad shot, and
injures himself but does not die. He is taken to his mother's
upholstery shop. Beethoven and Schindler both go there. Karl writes to
Beethoven (everyone was communicating with him by writing in notebooks
or on small slates) "Never show your face to me again". Ludwig's
desolation is complete. He is universally despised for what he had
driven Karl to. He is shown being physically abused on the street by
young hooligans, who beat him senseless. The scene ends with him
lying unconscious in the street.WARNING: SPOILER COMING UP.
The biographical flashbacks end. Schindler explains to Countess
Erdody his reason for the visit; he needs to know who was the
"immortal beloved" in the letter. The Countess says "The letter was
not written to me." "Then who?" "It was she who came between us. He
could not forget her." "Who is she?" "The answer was always in front
of you." She tells him, off camera, who she was. He gets into his
coach, not knowing what to do. She says "Go to her".
Schindler is then seen entering Johanna Reiss's upholstery shop. He
asks to speak to her in private. She is quite cold to him, but he
implores her. They go upstairs. He asks to see a sample of her
handwriting. She continues to be hostile, but he persuades her. He
then brings out the page from the hotel register and sees that the
handwriting matches. She demands to know what that page is. "A page
from a hotel registry in Karlsbad, signed by you. Did you ever meet
Ludwig in Karlsbad?" "You can hardly be unaware of the manner in which
I suffered at his hands. I find the question as insulting as it is
impudent. What are you implying?" Her hostility eventually subsides,
and she explains that she had made peace with him, in her own mind,
because of the Ode to Joy (9th Symphony.) "I could not hate the man
who could write such music."
The final three flashbacks follow. The first is the premiere
performance of the 9th Symphony. Beethoven walks up on stage at some
point (another conductor was at the podium), and stares blankly at the
musicians, being unable to hear the performance. He becomes lost in a
personal reverie. He is hearing the Ode to Joy in is mind
during this. He recalls an incident as a child when he ran away from
his violently abusive father. He runs through the woods while the 9th
Symphony plays. (This scene solves the problem of depicting
Beethoven's deafness while treating the audience to his music. He
can't hear the concert, but the Symphony is played as he runs through
the woods in his fantasy.) He finally reaches a small pond, and, just
at the big crescendo of the Ode to Joy, lies down in the water and is
shown in a cosmic oneness with the heavens.
At the end of the cosmic scene, we are brought back to the concert
hall. The Symphony has ended, though Beethoven doesn't realize it.
The sound track has been turned off to depict his deafness. The
audience is silently applauding, but Beethoven doesn't see them. Then
the conductor turns Beethoven around, so he can see the audience, who
leap to their feet with loud and thunderous applause.
In the second of the final flashbacks, Johanna visits Beethoven on his
deathbed, and he writes out a document transferring guardianship of
Karl back to her. They hold hands briefly in apparent awareness of
their lost love.
Finally, Johanna tells Schindler "Yes, I once loved him. But he
turned his back on me. I never heard a word from him. I was a fool.
I never meant anything to him." "But, the letter." "What letter?"
After a long pause, Schindler realizes that she never saw the
. He gives it to her.
Schindler leaves, and we see her sobbing in the window as she reads
Beethoven's letter to his immortal beloved. The slow movement of the
Emperor Concerto is played one last time, with one last narration of
the letter. The final flashback shows what had happened.My angel, my all, my other self ... If we could be united, we would
feel this pain no longer ... Soon, we shall live together, and what a
life it will be.
All the time that Caspar was courting her, she was actually sleeping
with Ludwig. He comes to visit Johanna at her upholstery shop. She
is afraid that Caspar will catch them. He says that he can no longer
skulk around like a guilty schoolboy. They agree to meet at a hotel
in Karlsbad. She tells him that she is carrying his child. (That
would be Karl!)
She arrives at the hotel, but, because of a terrible storm, Beethoven
is delayed. It is at this point that he writes the letter, and sends
it on ahead of him.The journey was dreadful ... The coach had to go and break down on
such a terrible road for no reason ... and now I am held up
The letter arrives, and Frau Streicher places it on a food tray, but
nearly hidden under a plate of pastry.I have to see you ... However much you love me, I love you more.
Johanna takes the lid off a tureen of not-very-appetizing stew, and
becomes nauseous. (She is presumably experiencing morning sickness.)
Because of that, the terrible storm, and the belief that Beethoven has
stood her up, she despairs of the situation and checks out. She never
sees the letter.I must go to sleep now. Be calm, love. Today, yesterday.
What longing with tears for you.
Beethoven arrives, sees that she has left, and goes on a destructive
rampage. He then picks up the letter from the floor, not knowing that
it had been nearly hidden. Since it had been opened, he assumes that
she had read it and spurned him.While still in my bed, my thoughts turn to you, my immortal beloved
... I can live only completely with you, or not at all ... You're my
life, my everything ... Go on loving me. Ever yours, ever mine,
In the final scene, Johanna visits Beethoven's grave, and the music turns
from the pathos of the 2nd movement to the triumph of the 3rd.