Feb 26, 2014

Ludwig's Cook

After discovering the high-camp films of kraut dandy Werner Schroeter (Der Bomberpilot, Deux) and facing scorn from West German film critics due to his criticism of the far-left counter-culture movement with his second feature San Domingo (1970), Prussian auteur Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Scarabea: How Much Land Does a Man Need?, Parsifal) totally reinvented his aesthetic with his third narrative feature Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King (1972) aka Ludwig - Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König, which was the filmmaker’s first film in his masterful ‘Germany Trilogy’ (preceding Karl Mary (1974) and Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)) and his first attempt at creating a celluloid neo-Wagnerite ‘Gesamtkunstwerk.’ In between Ludwig and Karl Mary, Syberberg decided to temporarily go back to his minimalist documentarian roots and directed a strange little film entitled Theodor Hierneis oder Wie man ehem. Hofkoch wird (1973) aka Theodor Hierneis or How to become a former royal chef aka Le cuisinier de Ludwig aka Ludwig’s Cook. A sort of companion piece to Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King that Susan “The white race is the cancer of human history” Sontag once described as, “an austere Brechtian melodrama of ninety minutes with Ludwig’s cook as its one character—it anticipates the valet’s narrative in Hitler, a Film from Germany—and was inspired by Brecht’s unfinished novel on the life of Julius Caesar narrated by his slave,” Ludwig’s Cook is a quirky one-man show starring and co-written by stereotypically Bavarian actor Walter Sedlmayr (Volker Schlöndorff’s Baal, Welt am Draht aka World on a Wire) following the marginal historical figure Theodor Hierneis, royal chef at the court of Ludwig II of Bavaria, as he fondly reminisces about his past life appeasing the rather idiosyncratic appetite of the mad ‘Fairy Tale King’ as he walks around rural Bavaria, as well as the mysterious monarch’s castles, Linderhof and Neuschwanstein, and royal cabin, Schachen. Essentially one long monologue taken largely directly from Hierneis’ memoir, Ludwig’s Cook attempts to fill in some blanks left by Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King by painting a truly ‘picturesque’ (indeed, one cannot deny that rural Bavaria and Ludwig’s lavish homes are most aesthetically pleasing in a fairy tale sort of way) portrait of the ‘perfect Wagnerite’ from the perspective of a lowly servant who tends to the needs of a decidedly decadent king who rotted out all his teeth by eating too many sweets and who forced his servants to wander the countryside during the overnight and early A.M. hours. While undoubtedly one of the filmmaker’s more minor works, Ludwig’s Cook is also indubitably an important work in Syberberg’s oeuvre in that it acted as a building block for his magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany, as it would also feature obscure nobodies like Heinrich Himmler’s personal astrologist and Uncle Adolf’s personal valet retelling history in a highly personalized anecdotal fashion, thereupon presenting a true ‘volk history’ that obfuscates the historical documentary record. 

 Beginning at the age of 14 in November 1882 as an apprentice in the royal kitchen of the court of King Ludwig II, Theodor Hierneis would become the ‘royal chef’ in 1884 and his reign would last until 1886 when the monarch died under dubious circumstances that same year. As Hierneis (Walter Sedlmayr) states of the experience, “For four years, I belonged to the household of an unusual king.” While describing Ludwig II as ‘unusual,’ Hierneis' respect for the man is undeniable, even if he was paid only one to two marks a day. On first meeting the king, the chef found him to be, “tall, noble, handsome, pale, a ghost-like apparition with big dark and incredibly luminous eyes…A mysterious king…that’s how I saw him the first time.” Indeed, Hierneis seems to view Ludwig II in a mystical manner typical of the Bavarian peasants who celebrate the monarch’s aesthetically pleasing legacy to this day. Rising from the rabble to the level of royal culinary artist, the chef rightfully describes his personal motto as such: “Laughed at as an apprentice, honored as a master.” Of course, Hierneis viewed Ludwig II from a servile class-based distance, and while the King tended to treat his visitors to remarkably lavish gifts, the loyal chef was never once treated to a single one. Instead, Hierneis had the honor of becoming a witness to great history from the sidelines, as a man that got to see The Fairy Tale King interact with ‘völkisch avant-garde’ poet Felix Dahn and Hungarian-Austrian actor Josef Kainz. One of the things Hierneis enjoyed most about working for Ludwig II was learning that he was just like any other ordinary person, stating of his experiences, “I found this comforting that he too had to suffer pain, like all of us. Later, in my time, the King was almost completely toothless and he always held a perfumed lace handkerchief in front of his lips and kept people at a distance.” Indeed, Ludwig II was a terribly temperamental individual of the rather whimsical sort as indicated by Hierneis’ remark, “his taste and appetite depended very much on his actual mood,” so the chef made a special menu for the monarch and prepared his meals in a manner so that they were soft enough for a new born babe to eat. 

 Although a King, Ludwig II also had his heroes, with Louis XIV aka ‘Louis the Great’ being such a major hero that he designed his royal bedroom after the French monarch’s bedroom and had a statue of the man that he would greet each day. Of course, Ludwig’s Francophilia was not limited to hero worship, as he had his cook him French cuisine even though the Berlin royals dined on Anglo-German dishes. Hierneis also unwittingly hints at the King’s homosexuality, stating, “The King did not like female servants. His valet Rutz received him from the bath with two towels,” but more importantly he understood that Ludwig II was a fanatical aestheticist who financially supported great artists like Richard Wagner (Ludwig settled all the composer's debts and provided him a lavish villa in Tribschen, Switzerland) and whose, “ideal was to have the most beautiful things from all over the world…buildings and plants, birds, deer, peacocks, birds of paradise and all that…if he could have gathered it all in one place and perhaps some people too. Well, he wanted to build a paradise…it could have happened in Bavaria.” Demonstrating a certain loyalty that is virtually unknown nowadays in the Occident, Hierneis states on the subject of the King’s famously curious mental state, “that the King might be ill or mad, this idea would never have occurred to us. We wouldn’t have dared anyway. We’ve loved him far too much for that. We looked upon his character as a sort of luxury of being, he was the King after all. Direct orders of government…we saw very little of that here. In fact, none of it.” As Hierneis reveals, when his master Ludwig died, the distinguished culinary artist went on to work as Prince Regent Luitpold 's chef from form 1886 to 1890 and then went to Berlin to volunteer in the royal kitchen of Kaiser Wilhelm II, eventually becoming court chef. Of course, like any true citizen from the Bavarian free state, Hierneis became homesick and eventually came home in 1901 and with his savings, opening a delicatessen shop in Munich as a man who ultimately “founded a bourgeois existence” as a distinguished cook with an aristocratic clientele who was eventually appointed “Royal Bavarian Court Supplier.” Indeed, like Bavaria in general with its ancient fairy tale castles that have proven to become very profitable tourist spots in the long run, Ludwig’s wayward reign ultimately proved to be quite a worthwhile experience for chef Theodor Hierneis. 

 Not all that unlike King Ludwig II, actor Walter Sedlmayr, who was also a gay Bavarian in kraut Catholic land, died a rather bizarre death that adds a certain mystery and intrigue to his character. Found dead in his Munich apartment on 15 July 1990, Sedlmayr was apparently tied up, stabbed in the gut, and beat in the head with a hammer by two of his former business partners, half-brothers Wolfgang Werlé and Manfred Lauber, with a biopic about the actor and his murder entitled Wambo (2001) directed by Jo Baier starring Jürgen Tarrach in the lead role being released a decade later. Despite being a rather small film, Ludwig’s Cook ultimately earned the Deutscher Filmpreis for ‘Best Non-Narrative Film’(Film Award in Silver) and ‘Best Actor’ (Film Award in Gold) at the 1973 German Film Awards. I enjoyed Ludwig’s Cook enough that I kind of wish Syberberg directed a companion piece to Hitler: A Film from Germany of a similar meta-history spirit as the famed Führer apparently had a Jewish chef named Fräulein Kunde on loan, or so the Jewish author M. Hirsh Goldberg would claim in his book The Jewish Connection (1976). It seems British auteur Mike Leigh must have saw some merit in Ludwig’s Cook as well as his short A Sense of History (1992)—a one-man show written and starring Jim Broadbent about a fictional aristocratic fellow named ’23 Earl of Leete’ who discusses his 900+ year family history while giving a tour of his rather lavish homestead—takes virtually the same aesthetic approach, but ultimately fails to be as interesting as Syberberg’s film. In short, Ludwig’s Cook is an aesthetic achievement as it is discernibly Brechtian yet still manages to have a soul, not to mention the fact it pays tribute to German kultur as opposed to besmirching it like the kosherphile commie playwright had such a proclivity for (During his Stalinist days, Brecht wrote to a friend regarding the Moscow trials and his countrymen, “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.”), which is no small achievement for a little film about a peasant discussing a toothless monarch’s strange eating habits. 

-Ty E

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