In the first scene, Beethoven (Harry Baur) walks in on a hysterically grieving mother and eases her agony by conjuring up serenity from a nearby piano -- the music revives the dead child in her memory. Throughout Abel Gance's historically suspect but ineffably moving vision of the genius composer, music is both agony and ecstasy, whether welcoming an engagement or drowning out a beloved's rejection. Above all, however, it soothes Beethoven's spiritual turmoil ("Music condemns me to life"), whose encroaching deafness makes him in Gance's eyes the Tragic Artist par excellence and, despite his (fictitious) downfall in the movie, as majestic a figure as his Napoléon. Baur's Ludwig van is a Promethean shambler, an oversized head atop a stooped frame, spotted early in his jammies scribbling a composition on the walls of his Vienna flat. Gance's beloved Victorian triangle shapes the narrative -- Beethoven's immortelle aimee is coquettish student Giulietta (here Juliette) Guicciardi (Jany Holt), though he settles for loyal, masochistic Theresa von Brunswick (Annie Ducaux) -- but the main struggle, crudely powerful and powerfully crude, is between the artist and the world, his music a burning impulse to impose order in the universe around him. (Beethoven's discovery of his deafness, an objective-subjective aural montage played against the shifting waters of Baur's face, is justly celebrated.) Easily the best of Gance's talkies, the film's creative élan scarcely wavers even at its most leadenly dramatic. (In any case, I find its alleged naiveté infinitely less pernicious than all the repellent knowingness of Ken Russell's own composer epics.) Written by Gance and Steve Passeur. With Jean Debucourt, Paul Pauley, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Marcel Dalio. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce