Thursday, February 26, 2009

Copying Beethoven

"Copying Beethoven" (Agnieszka Holland, 2006) The story's pure hokum–there was no young female copyist to help Beethoven complete the parts for his Ninth Symphony in time for its premiere. Nor did she help him conduct itMichael Umlauf, the theater's musical director helped the deaf composer keep the rhythm, in full sight of the audience, and not in hiding as this film would have you believe it.

But if one can get beyond the subterfuge (and it's the biggest crock of classical fiction since "
Amadeus"), one can find a few things to recommend it. Diane Kruger, as copyist Anna Holtz, takes on "The Beast," and the herculean task of finishing the manuscript. The presentation of the music is all-important—as it should be—and Holland excells at the staging of that premiere for both Holtz and Beethoven becoming enraptured with the bond they share of his music. And Holland made a brilliant choice of picking Ed Harris to play Beethoven. Harris is an actor who likes to walk the edge and his Beethoven is a crazed, passionate misanthrope, always talking uncomfortably loud (due to his deafness) no matter the subject matter, but utterly un-ironic in speaking of his gift for the music that God sends into his head. The movie is worth seeing merely for his charged performance.

One thing that Holland does (and she mentions it in the commentary track as inspired) is to take the end of the film and start it with that—an unconventional approach that can lend suspense to a movie with a fore-gone conclusion. But here, there is no suspense: the sequence of Anna going to Beethoven's death-bed to tell him that she finally understands his last composition is all pictures and stray music and no explanation. Beethoven's goal was to communicate the natural sounds of the world in a musical presentation (that approaches jazz in its form!) and Holland juxtaposes her journey with images of the country-side with Beethoven's strange music accompanying it, communicating that Holtz "gets" it. It's disorienting, obtuse, and a terrible way to introduce an audience into the piece, robbing the film-goer of a proper beginning and a satisfying end.

Even Beethoven knew enough not to put the coda at the beginning.

Still, one can be thankful that the makers were wise enough not to make this a love story, ala "
Immortal Beloved," and saved the mutual passion for the high fidelity of the music.

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