Film Review #66: Copying Beethoven
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode
For many years, I thought that director Martin Scorcese, whom I admire greatly, might have an evil twin. This was how I formulated for myself the seemingly inevitable presence of wildly fluctuating scenes within a single film – always at least one clunker in amongst the gems. With The Departed, Scorcese has laid that to rest, killing his darlings along with most of his characters. Though I would not normally pair these two directors, I bring up Scorcese’s split because Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Copying Beethoven is a film that also seems at odds with itself.
I went to Copying Beethoven expecting, even wanting to like it. Some of it I did like. Immediately, Holland’s usually sure hand is evident in the magnificent opening scene. A closed carriage careens along a muddy road in the 19th century Austrian countryside, past poor trudging women who peer after it as they get out of the way, past fields and woods – past daily life – and beneath wheeling birds whose startled flight matches the passenger’s own urgency. It’s 1827 and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), musical copyist and aspiring composer, is rushing to the death-bed of her “Maestro,” the renowned Beethoven (Ed Harris). But more than anything this carriage scene is about the vivid, almost overwhelming awakening of her senses. It’s chilly, and we are roughly thrown about in Anna’s careening coach along with her, catching flashes of sky and branch, nearly smelling the steaming horses, and above all, hearing everything. Every hoof beat, every crow’s call, every squeak of the carriage, every sudden brief lull, pant and rustle – all of it picked out clearly and then mingled with soaring music. Anna Holtz apprehends the world fully just as the man who’s shown it to her lies on the razor’s edge of death. You see, she has just grasped what he has to offer, barely in time to repay his gift by telling him she got it.
“I heard it like you hear it, Maestro,” she tells him, once she arrives in his cramped upper room, with the little window just over his shoulder past the bed. She is sure of it. At the film’s end – after the movie’s story, when Anna Holtz recalls the intervening three years – she’ll see her own reflection in that window and go out walking in a sunny meadow, rejoining the world. Meanwhile, somewhat miraculously, before the movie even really starts, Holland has made us hear it too, as if for the first time. Holland says this was her goal – a tall order when you consider that in our jaded age there are more than 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to choose from (the one we hear in this film is the 1996 Decca recording with Bernard Haitink conducting). But this first dazzling scene of Anna in the carriage by herself is far more successful than most of what follows – even the centerpiece scene of Beethoven conducting the Ninth premiere that’s gotten the most attention – and it compactly mirrors how Beethoven’s own innovations disrupted the way people heard music.
Most of the action occurs in flashback to 1824, when the composer debuts his Ninth Symphony and then goes on to write his later string quartets. The Ninth turned out to be both a comeback for Beethoven and a hinge moment in music itself, audaciously adding chorus to symphony, extending symphonic length, rearranging its forms and more. The film places us in the frantic days before that debut, with sections of Budapest dating from the 12th century and other Hungarian locations standing in for Beethoven’s Vienna. Long made solitary by his hearing loss, ill-tempered and difficult in the extreme, disorganized, demanding, obsessed, Beethoven needs help to get his score copied out for the orchestra.
The film posits that a young woman has persuaded her respectable family to let her study musical composition. She is able to lodge at a Vienna convent because her aunt seems to be the Mother Superior there. Then Beethoven’s publisher recommends her as his new copyist. At first, and for quite a long time too, Beethoven is irascible, dismissive and living in the midst of trash and rats. (As an aside, while Ed Harris is convincingly boorish, I would not say he is convincingly Beethoven. Recently a local paper wrote that Scarlett Johansson was “too modern” for The Prestige, and after Copying Beethoven I know what they meant.) Anyway, Anna Holtz gets her chance, saves the day by secretly conducting the Ninth from the orchestra pit, and becomes his student and assistant in the writing of the later string quartets. Along the way, Beethoven demonstrates to Anna Holtz that her fiancé, Martin (Match Point’s Matthew Goode) is an untalented architect as well as a possessive boyfriend, and is himself fleeced by his cynical nephew Karl. Perhaps most creepy is the scene in which Beethoven, reclining Pieta-like, asks Anna Holtz to bathe him.
Some of this is historically true and some, not. As anyone knows who’s heard of this film, “Anna Holtz” is a composite figure, based on two male students who assisted Beethoven from time to time, and also inspired by the story of Karoline Unger, a singer at the debut of the Ninth who gently turned Beethoven to face the audience so that he could see the applause he could not hear.
It’s a subtle touch, but Beethoven calls Anna Holtz by both her names throughout the film. This suggests that he has trouble knowing quite where to place her. Anna Holtz is a problem, but I’ve decided this is not Diane Kruger’s fault. For US audiences who don’t know her work abroad, Kruger may still be living down Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, but she quietly holds her own in this part and we’ll see more of her. As Anna, Kruger also plays a figure whom Holland holds with some congenial intimacy. Holland told GreenCine’s Steven Jenkins, when the film opened several weeks ago, that she had a maestro in film school herself. “I feel myself in Anna’s boots when she challenges Beethoven.”
The problem with Anna Holtz is larger and more amorphous than her character. She’s supposed to be a device that allows us to enter Beethoven’s solitary world, to personify a young audience’s encounter with his music. Instead, this film’s approach largely recasts the composer into the same marketing terms that many shrinking, cash-strapped US symphony orchestras are busy employing to attract a younger “demo.” In place of parties, dinners and prizes to draw subscribers to live performances, this film invents Anna Holtz. I’d like to know whether the investors or the character came first. At least her carriage ride crossed the screen first.
This review was written for Stylusmagazine.com, where it appeared on 12/6/06.