Mar 30, 2013

Beethoven's Nephew

Without a doubt, Beethoven's Nephew (1985) aka Le neveu de Beethoven is the most stoically serious and professionally produced film ever directed by iconoclastic Roman Catholic and self-described conservative auteur Paul Morrissey (Flesh, Madame Wang's) – a 'counter-revolutionary' filmmaker whose talents only increased and whose films became all the more personal the more he moved away from his ex-collaborator Andy Warhol. A French-West German co-production that was, quite inexplicably, co-penned by talented French-German actor Mathieu Carrière (Young Törless, Malina), who also stars in the film in a more minor role, Beethoven's Nephew, not unsurprisingly, is oftentimes compared to the big budget, Academy Award winning Hollywood film Amadeus (1984) directed by Miloš Forman, yet despite having a much lower budget work and being a work that is barely recognized in the United States, Morrissey’s film goes to much greater extremes in giving a damning and demystifying depiction of the great German composer and his curious relationship with his nephew, so it is no surprise that it ultimately caused many modern day krauts to be sour, or as the director stated himself, “Beethoven was pure Molière, a character of lunacy and exaggeration, not the Shakespearean hero that the Germans now pretend. That was widely known during his lifetime.” Indeed, if one were to judge the perturbing portrayal of the seemingly megalomaniac of a maestro in Beethoven's Nephew, it is easy to see how the rapist/murderer anti-hero Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was able to find a kindred spirit in the music of Beethoven. Utilizing Jacques Brenner’s 1957 fictional memoir of Karl van Beethoven – a work largely rooted in fact that portrays the composer’s nephew as a helpless victim of his famous uncle – but especially the groundbreaking work Beethoven’s Nephew aka Il Nipote di Beethoven (1972) written by Italian author Luigi Magnani and excerpts from the composer’s own personal letters, Beethoven's Nephew portrays the composer as crazy a crank of a cripple whose talent for music is totally transcended by his obsession with his young nephew and hatred of the boy’s ostensibly whorish mother. A man who was apparently described by his own brother as having an, “almost total incapacity to have normal relationships with other people,” and who charged his patrons to watch him hedonistically gorge himself as if he were the bastard great-great-great-great-grandfather of Hermann Göring, the mad maestro is tragicomedically depicted in Beethoven's Nephew – one of only a handful of films that manages to portray the unflattering connection between pure genius and sheer madness as a sort of idiot savant pathology – as a possessive pervert who does not think twice about physically manhandling his nephew away when the lad has his member intertwined in a voluptuous housemaid’s meat-curtain.

 As a lifelong listener of the Teutonic composer himself, director Paul Morrissey has hypothesized that the new emotionalism in Beethoven’s late quartets and the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony was the feeling of passionate love he had developed for his nephew and this is communicated aesthetically in the film in the following fashion as described by the auteur himself, “When Beethoven looks at his nephew, his emotions are not spoken but heard on the soundtrack, the emotions of the idealized music.” Of course, as an aberrant authoritarian of sorts, Beethoven would also inevitably drive his nephew to attempt committing suicide by shooting himself in the head. As one learns while watching Beethoven's Nephew, Beethoven (Wolfgang Reichmann of Werner Herzog's Signs of Life (1968) aka Lebenszeichen and Woyzeck (1979)) completely and utterly hated his sister-in-law Johanna (Serge Gainsbourg ‘s one-time muse Jane Birkin), so when his brother Carl died of tuberculosis, he managed to take custody of his nephew Karl (Dietmar Prinz in his first and sole movie role) after a protracted legal battle against his brother’s wanton widow, who, in part, was denied custody due to her dubious morals (she has an illegitimate child with another man and was a convicted thief) and lack of financial support. In Beethoven's Nephew, the maestro wastes no time in coddling and constantly looking after his proto-twink nephew, which rather annoys the lad as he has no life of his own and certainly does not have the talent to be the great musical composer his uncle wants him to be. Even when Karl manages to move away and go to private school, the unhinged uncle follows him along and even walks in on the boy and his friends engaging in smutty sex-capades in their dorm room, which naturally enrages Beethoven, but he gets all the more huffy and puffy when he realizes that his nephew is regularly seeing his mother – a high-class harlot who fornicates with men not much older than her son. Aside from his nephew, who the composer wastes a small fortune on to pay for his school and hyper-hedonistic lifestyle, Beethoven treats everyone around him as objects and obstacles to be manipulated for his own personal gain, and eventually he begins writing new music just so he can earn money from his patrons and spend it on things related to Karl's lavish lifestyle. When Karl falls hopelessly in love with an older woman named Leonore (Nathalie Baye of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) and the hit AIDS-themed TV movie And the Band Played On (1993)) who is a wealthy artist, the boy has finally managed to find a way to get away from his softcore sadist of an uncle, so Beethoven plots to irrevocably destroy the relationship. Finally fed up with the way his Uncle has dominated his personal life and has cock-blocked him innumerable times, Karl attempts suicide via bullet to the head, but miraculously survives. Using his uncle’s weakness for him against him, Karl inevitably has the last laugh…even if he never laughs.  In Paul Morrissey's mind, as well as apparently many Germans around the maestro's time, it was, quite ironically, nephew Karl who led to Herr Ludwig van Beethoven's worldly demise.

While many viewers have described Beethoven's Nephew as a homophile work portraying Beethoven as an incestuous pederast of sorts who has a hysterical hatred of women, including The New York Times star critic Vincent Canby, who described the film as being, “full of homoerotic nuances,” Paul Morrissey has vehemently denied what he sees as outright outrageous allegations. In fact, concerning the dubious dynamic of the one-sided relationship by the marvelously moonstruck maestro and his mostly emotionally monotone nephew in Beethoven's Nephew, Morrissey stated, “It’s inconceivable to think that Beethoven wanted sex with his nephew. That’s a “liberal,” Freudian idea. I never thought this. There was no eroticism. What he seemed to want was what Frankenstein and Dracula wanted, control and possession. That’s a much more powerful and confusing emotion. And although he never said it, maybe some kind of affection. His concerns with his nephew had more to do with his nephew’s maturing, the reality that he was growing up and would no longer be under his control…Wanting to control life makes him more sympathetic to me, a conservative, because remember, to me sex is the stupid religion of the “liberal.” In none of my films has sex ever been anything that anybody ever “wanted.” To read Beethoven’s motives as sexual is to swallow the pervasive liberal lie that sex is not just a positive value but the entire meaning of life on the planet! When you believe that lie, naturally it follows that all behavior gravitates towards that goal.”

Indeed, considering virtually all of Paul Morrissey’s films feature some sort of handsome, if not sadly strung-out, hunk in some form of undress, it would be easy to see that the filmmaker was living vicariously through the authoritarian anti-hero of Beethoven's Nephew – a darkly comical and romantic cinematic work featuring what is one of the most unhealthy uncle-nephew relationships ever captured on celluloid, yet executed with the sort of restrained subtly of the silent era. Like the other famous Morrissey of Irish stock, many believe that Paul Morrissey has led a life of (Catholic) celibacy and his former collaborator Andy Warhol seems to have thought the same thing, writing, “The running question was, did he [Paul Morrissey] have a sex life or not? Everyone who'd ever known him insisted that he did absolutely nothing, and all his hours seemed accounted for, but still Paul was an attractive guy, so people constantly asked, 'What does he do? He must do something...,” yet no one seems to know what that “something” was as we only have his films as evidence and if something thing can be said about Beethoven's Nephew, it is that the director must really love Beethoven’s music and looks nostalgically on the good old days of Occidental high kultur and when men taught their sons (or, in this case, nephews) responsibility and discipline, like staying away from salacious young ladies with syphilis. Even though Morrissey portrayed Beethoven as a belligerent and boorish bastard of a man in Beethoven's Nephew, the auteur ultimately, “was always entirely sympathetic to Beethoven. I feel sorry for him because he was the victim of his own selfishness. I like the story because there’s such a connection between his music and his life. I was struck by the fact that Beethoven never pontificated about his music. He’d say it was the best and then leave it at that. That was the one little area in which he was secure. Otherwise he was blind, helpless, a little like Mister Magoo. This makes him very human, even sympathetic.” Indeed, one cannot help respect a man who is best known for depicting impotent hunk hustlers in a heroin haze and being the ‘Warhol Factory Filmmaker,’ yet finding a kindred spirit of sorts in Beethoven.

In our contemporary zeitgeist where the popular nasty noise that is played on MTV and Hollywood movies that are written by proud pimps, crackheads and dope fiends, clownish would-be-Whores of Babylon, enfant terrible twinks that sound like Negress soul singers, braindead pothead metalheads who drown their musical ineptitude in distortion, white trash wiggers who confuse spastic illiteracy with poetry, and so-called country singers who throw up if they ever smelled a steaming cow turd, Beethoven's Nephew makes for a classy work of cinema that reminds one that there was actually a time when a person could actually have 'too much concern' for the welfare of their kin.

-Ty E

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