Immortal Beloved (1994) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The life and death of the legendary Ludwig van Beethoven. Besides all the work he is known for, the composer once wrote a famous love letter to a nameless beloved, and the movie tries to find out who this beloved was--not easy, as Beethoven has had many women in his life.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven dies and his assistant/friend Schindler proceeds to deal with his affairs (last will and testament). There is a question as to who really is his "immortal beloved," and so he tries to find out who this might be.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • 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 (Gary Oldman) 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 fictional.)

    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 (Luigi Diberti), 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" letter.

    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 (Matthew North). 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 (Marco Hofschneider), 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.


    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 letter. 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 completely.

    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, forever.

    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.

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