Usually, one can launch right into a discussion of the film itself--but not here. Syberberg's film is not quite like anything else you are likely to have seen, and one has to establish context. First, aesthetics: Syberberg is driven by two primary, and contradictory, influences: Wagner's concept of the Gesamkunstwerk, the total work of art, integrating image, word, and music into a single overpowering experience, by implication completely immersive; and Brecht's anti-naturalistic epic theater, one of the primary goals of which is constantly to remind the viewer that he is watching a play via a range of distancing techniques, such as breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. Without taking these two principles into account, Syberberg's style will appear almost incomprehensible.
This is not a conventional narrative film; it proceeds as a series of tableaux taken from the life of Ludwig II, last king of Bavaria, castle builder, patron of Richard Wagner, and romantic, finally deposed for alleged insanity and (most likely) assassinated. (If you are tempted to watch this film (and I hope you are), it would not be a bad idea quickly to read the Wikipedia article on the life of Ludwig II.) These tableaux are staged in highly stylized sets back by giant backdropslargely Romantic paintings. Some are naturalistic; some, dream sequences that bring in elements that Syberberg explores in the second and third films of his trilogy, including Hitler and Karl Maya German writer and filmmaker who wrote extensively about the Wild West while never leading Germany.
The other essential element is Wagner. Ludwig's legacy to the world is twofold; first of all, his castles, bequeathed to the Bavarian state, and a source of enormous tourist revenue, and Wagner's final operas. It is quite possible that, without Ludwig's extravagant patronage, the Ring and Parsifal would never have been written, nor the Bayreuth festival begun. The Ring is an essential organizing principle herethe film begins with the prelude to Das Rheingold, complete with Rhine maidens (here conflated with the Norns in Gotterdammerung) and ends with the music of the Immolation scene in Gotterdammerung. Along the way, Syberber pairs crucial scenes with other Wagner selections including the love duet and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and Siegfried's funeral march. (An additional stylistic subtlety; Syberberg uses Wagner performances by Furtwangler and Karajan, slow paced and hypnotic.) At the most obvious level, Ludwig comes off as an extravagant, surrealistic and dreamlike meditation on the life of one of the strangest monarchs in European history. But it is far more than that. The more you know about German history, literature, music, and culture, the more evident it becomes that the film is an extended meditation on those topicsin particular, the conflict between modernism, exemplified in the Prussian state and Bismark, and Romantic attitudes and nature worship. There are some extended passages from Goethe (I believe), for instance, that would have deeper resonance if one were familiar with his Iphigenia in Taurus. I am tolerably familiar with German history and history, and rather more deeply familiar with Wagner, and I have no doubt that there are references that flew right by me. If ever a film warranted the full Criterion treatment with detailed commentary, this one does.
I haven't discussed performancesfrankly, they are so subordinated to the overall design of the film that to say anything beyond Syberberg gets what he wants would be superfluous. There are other fascinating enigmas; why, for instance, are there two actors playing Wagner, one male and one female? Jungian animus and anima? One could go on for more pages than the reader would have patience for.
How to rate this, and for what audience? For the serious minded film-goer, and for the Wagner enthusiast, at least an 8/10. I have been recently been pretty disgusted by most of what I see coming out on the screen, and a film like thisdifficult and almost willfully obscure as it often isis immensely refreshing as an alternative. It pushes the boundaries of what we recognize in the medium of film. Undoubtedly, to a significant degree, the more you bring to the film, the greater will be your reward.
For the average film goera 6. But be patient, and be prepared to have your perceptions of what film is challenged.