Beethoven Returns to Bonn: Origins, Belonging and Misuse in Mauricio Kagel’s Ludwig van (1969)

Fitz Gibbon, Elaine

In 1969 West Germany, the country was abuzz with anticipation of the approaching Beethoven bicentennial. That year the composer and experimental filmmaker Mauricio Raúl Kagel, born in Argentina to Russian- and German-Jewish parents in 1931 and living in Cologne since 1957, was commissioned by the State to commemorate the momentous occasion. What resulted was a film that surely no West German official had anticipated. Entitled Ludwig van: A Report and strongly inflected by Kagel’s absurdist aesthetic, Kagel’s film critiques the fetish object that Beethoven’s music and person had become in twentieth-century West Germany, touching upon, amongst many topics, East German claims of Beethoven’s “misuse” by the West German government, as well as the rise in the 1960s of the theory that Beethoven was Black.
While Ludwig van has been recognized for its sendup of bourgeois music culture, it has yet to be analyzed from the perspective of diasporic experience. Simultaneously a love letter to and deconstruction of Beethoven’s cultural legacy, Ludwig van asks its audience to consider the complex diasporic experiences of avant-garde artists in the wake of WWII. Drawing on work by Brigid Cohen, I argue for the centrality of the theme of migration and displacement in Ludwig van. And in reading two central scenes from the film, I consider, in dialogue with Scott Burnham, what light the fifty-one-year-old film’s critique of the fetishization of origins and genealogy might shed on the celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020, and such acts of memorization more generally.
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August 29, 2022