by Christie Collins
I was not a childhood friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. I grew up in the rural mountains of North Carolina on a farm–about as different as it could have been from eighteenth-century Germany. Looking back on those North Carolina years when my parents worked to build and maintain an apple farm (a dream of my father’s that I refer to as his “Great Experiment”), I spent way too much time watching the movies I loved time and time again on VHS. For me, movies were a way of passing time, especially during the bitter cold autumn evenings when my parents worked late hours sorting and boxing the apple crop. I’d sit in the small office trailer with a blanket over my lap watching movies on my 12″ box TV.
I have so many favorite movies, but when I attempt to isolate a movie that stands out among the rest–a film that shaped the movie lover in me–I would have to pick Immortal Beloved (1994), starring Gary Oldman at his best as Beethoven and the beautiful Isabella Rossellini as one of his leading ladies; a movie that, despite its many strengths, won no major awards.
As history tells us, Beethoven never married despite having numerous love interests. Following his death, a love letter written by the famous composer emerged that has piqued the interest of people for years, as the identity of the letter’s recipient has never been identified. Crafted as an historical mystery, the movie begins at Beethoven’s death, and the movie’s title draws inspiration from the letter itself as Beethoven refers to the mystery woman as his “immortal beloved.” In the film, the viewer travels with Beethoven’s former secretary and friend to discover the identity of the immortal beloved, to whom Beethoven has bequeathed all of his money and assets. The movie’s depiction of Beethoven’s life is no doubt embellished and creatively altered, in many ways portraying more of a could-have-been reality than what actually happened.
The whole movie, start to finish, is moving and gripping, but there is one particular scene that has stuck with me for almost twenty years. Near the end of the movie, the identity of the immortal beloved has been discovered, but the movie’s portrayal of the love between she and Beethoven was complicated (to say the least) and unrequited. She, along with hundreds of others, flocks to the premiere of his Ninth Symphony–commonly known as the “Ode to Joy.” At this point in the movie, everyone knows that Beethoven is deaf, a condition which in more ways than one is the real villain of the story.
As the orchestra performs the “Ode to Joy” symphony, Gary Oldman as the aged Beethoven walks on stage just slightly behind the conductor and gazes at the stage’s star-studded backdrop, his back to the crowd. As the camera focuses in on Beethoven’s face, the music vanishes, and we are left with what he is hearing–nothing. Then, the sound slowly returns. What the viewers hear now is the same symphony playing through his imagination, and as he experiences the music in his own mind, he remembers back on his childhood as the son of an abusive father.
The symphony still playing, the movie depicts the scene from Beethoven’s childhood. His father arrives home, drunk, a scene played out earlier in the movie as well. This time, instead of idly waiting for his father to beat him, the young Beethoven slips out through a window and begins running through a dewy nighttime field–the symphony in the background charging, building, progressing.
The young Beethoven arrives at a lake just as the symphony reaches a reprieve. He removes his shirt and shoes and steps into the cool water as a French horn answers the call of the strings.
Then, in an amazing moment of music and movie, the young Beethoven floats on his back in the water underneath a sky of stars, but because our view is from above, we see the reflection of the stars on the water so that it appears that young Beethoven is floating in a bed of stars–in his own universe above the pain and uncertainty of his troubled adolescence. Just as we witness this majestic scene, the orchestra and choir crescendo into the main chorus of “Ode to Joy.” We watch as the camera moves farther and farther from the young Beethoven suspended amid the stars until the stars and his young body become indistinguishable. When the movie reverts back to the present, Oldman’s Beethoven is gazing at the starry scene on the stage, tears welling up in his eyes, as he has imagined the beautiful scene the viewers just witnessed. The “Ode to Joy” symphony draws to a close onstage before it concludes in his mind, so the conductor must tap him on the shoulder. And when he turns to the crowd, every abled body in the orchestra hall rises with great excitement to give him a fervent standing ovation–a scene which, after having watched the whole movie, is a bit of a tearjerker.
The “Ode to Joy” scene is an example of truly remarkable cinematography and showed me, as a ten-year-old girl, that movies have the ability to visually capture emotion. Here is Beethoven old and alone. After years of heartbreak, he becomes deaf, the worst of all fates for a composer. And yet, after having written this masterpiece symphony–a symphony he can’t even hear–he thinks back on his childhood, on a moment when his body floated among the stars. From this, we are left to interpret that maybe Beethoven wasn’t truly alone and that his immortal beloved wasn’t only some long-lost maiden; it was music, his music, that made the expanse of his life singular and magnificent. This is cinema at its best: it’s visual poetry. It’s visual music. It’s life remastered.
A lifelong lover of film, Christie Collins works as a full-time instructor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University and lives in Baton Rouge with her husband, Matt Christian. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cold Mountain Review, Canyon Voices, and So to Speak.