Copying Beethoven: Agnieszka Holland’s Portrait of Composer Beethoven, Starring Ed Harris and Diane Kruger

What has happened to the gifted director Agnieszka Holland, the Holland we admired based on films like Europa, Europa, Olivier, Olivier, and The Secret Garden.  She cant seem to find proper subjects to which to apply her considerable skills and thus moves from one disappointing project to another.
The latest, Copying Beethoven, is arguably one of Holland’s worst films, worse than Total Eclipse, the literary portrait of the French poets, which was both an artistic and commercial flop.

A shallow, clich portrait of Ludwig Von Beethoven as an old, deaf man, the new movie comes across as bargain-basement Amadeus (about Mozart and Salieri) and not only because the two films were Euro-centric, shot in Budapest and Prague, respectively, by European directors (Holland is Polish, Milos Forman, who staged Amadeus, is Czech).

Vastly under-populated, Copying Beethoven is a musical epic in disguise: most of the drama centers on two characters, Beethoven and Anna Holtz, with some exterior shots that try unsuccessfully to distract attention from the claustrophobic text, an open up the movie so that it has a broader socio-musical context.

Holtz (model Diane Kruger of Troy fame), a 23-year old aspiring composer of humble means, is seeking inspiration and career advancement in Vienna, the worlds musical center. A student at the music conservatory, she is recommended for a position at a venerated publisher. In whats a fortuitous turn of events, she orchestrates an opportunity to work for the most mercurial artist alive, Ludwig van Beethoven (Ed Harris).

Framed by a brief prologue and epilogue, the story begins and ends in a sentimental way, when the young Anna Holtz bids a tearful farewell to Beethoven.

The tale then flashes back to 1824, and the eve of the premiere of Beethovens Ninth Symphony, though major parts of the work are not ready yet. Music publisher Wenzel Schlemer (Ralph Riach) urgently needs a copyist to finish the masters work. The young Anna Holtz offers one advantageshe is eager and available for the job. While knowing that working with a woman in anathema to the ill and cantankerous Beethoven, Schlemmer has no choice but to hire her.

For her part, Anna sees it as a message form Goda calling she tells a nun in the conventto show the famous composer her work, unaware of his rude and sexist nature.

Laying a contemporaneous feminist streak on this work rings false. Holland goes out of her way to show that in those times, women rarely had careers, and for Holtz to leave her family and hometown to study composition was a courageous step. Perhaps. But how authentic is it in early nineteenth century Vienna

We have all seen this asymmetric, give-and-take, relationship before. In one of their meetings, learning of Holtzs career ambitions, Beethoven tries to overawe the eager student, remarking: A woman composer is like a dog walking on its hind legs: Its never done well, but youre surprised to see it done at all.

Holtz is unafraid to stand up to the master, though shes naturally intimidated by his eccentric persona. Occasionally offended and humiliated, Holtz remains undeterred. She enters Beethovens mesmerizing realm, assisting his manic efforts to tap the deepest recesses of his talents. The experience, we are led to believe, changed profoundly her identity and fate.
Beethoven’s relationship with Holtz is virtually chaste. The closest we get to a romantic scene is when Holtz bathes Beethoven.

She’s engaged to budding engineer Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode of “Match Point,” with nothing significant to do or to say), who’s surprisingly open-minded and modern in his support of Anna’s own career.
The greatest love of Beethoven’s life, we are told, is for his irresponsible, good-for-nothing nephew Karl (British Joe Anderson). Karl refuses to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, and at one point, desperate for money, tries to rob him, only to be caught by Holtz.

The screenplay by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (who co-wrote “Nixon” and “Ali”) is not too deep, to say the least, and its hampered by conventional situationsfights and quarrels are followed by reconciliations, quiet encounters, and work sessions between the master and apprentice, and back again to fights and (temporary) separations.

When the skeptical Beethoven issues an impromptu challenge, Holtz demonstrates her competence and musical insight. Gradually, the maestro accepts her as his copyist, and thus commences a remarkable relationship, which also involves Holtzs duties as a housekeeper, caretaker, companionand muse.

Based on thorough research, details about the music world and Beethovens innovations are welcome, but the narrative doesnt bother to explain the whole gender issue beyond one-liners, such as the one noted above.

Holland demonstrates a good ear for musical performance by paying a respectful tribute to Beethovens his music, allowing 11 minutes of screen time to the first performance of his Ninth Symphony.

The film reaches its climax with this uninterrupted musical sequence, after which its all let down. The picture is not overlong by standards of running time (102 minutes), but it feels long and draggy because everything you need to know about the relationship had already been established.

However, considering her subject matter, Hollands direction is disappointingly routine and passionless. Most of the scenes, indoor and outdoors are staged in a similarly boring way. Practically every exterior begins with a high-angle long shot, before the camera gets closer to its objects.

The films last image of Anna Holtz, walking through the open fields (triumphantly Where is she going), with the camera tracking behind her, feels pat and kitschy.

Its hard to tell whereas Harriss interpretation is his creation or the result of Hollands misguidance, but he gives an uncharacteristically hammy and self-indulgent performance, relying on all the stereotypes you would expect from an actor playing a mad, obsessive, temperamental artist. Sporting a longhaired wig and clad in rags, he looks strange and sounds even stranger (what specific accent is he using).

It doesn’t help that Harris’s characterization of Beethoven is all clichs. He is by turns the mad-genius artist, the suffering artist in pain, the cruel artist abusing Holtzs goodness, the sensitive artist whos sexually attracted to the much younger Holtz–you can add freely other attributes to this list based on musical biopics you have seen.

A model-actress who has yet to prove her dramatic chops, Kruger seems unable to register any deep emotions. That shes in every scene in the film–with a larger narrative burden than Harriss to carry on her beautiful slender shoulders–makes things worse.

Major problem is the films fictional frame, about a woman copyist helping the maestro complete the masterwork, which is marred by too many false notes. Minor compensation is offered by the blending of studio sets and Hungarian locations, which creates a credibly looking nineteenth century Vienna; the film was shot by cinematographer Ashley Rowe in a palette of grays and blues.

Will there ever be an honorable movie about Beethoven that would do justice to the man, his genius, and his music As much as I disliked Bernard Roses Immortal Beloved (1994), at least some of its musical sequences were impressive, even if the narrative was historically inaccurate, and the music staged in a postmodern mode–not unlike Pink Floyd the Wall–to appeal to young viewers, which it didnt. (See my review) That movie was a flop, a fate likely to be shared by Copying Beethoven as well.

Copying Beethoven, which world-premiered at the Toronto Festival, and played in competition at San Sebastian Festival, will be released by MGM in late October.

End note

The Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, at the Karntnertor Theater. The program that night also included the Consecration of the House Overture and the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei from the Missa solemnis.

Earlier, Beethoven had accepted Londons offer to premiere his symphony there, and there were also rumors that he might open the Ninth in Berlin. These efforts were prevented by a group of Viennas most influential musicians and patrons.