Emotion suits women only; (forgive me!) music ought to strike fire from the soul of a man.
— Ludwig Van Beethoven, Letter to Bettina Von Arnim (1812)
Deep inside Copying Beethoven lies a good idea, intimated by its title. Set from the start to look back on the last days of Ludwig Van Beethoven (Ed Harris), it filters his cantankerous genius through a “copyist,” a girl who transcribes his rapturous scribblings into legible form, thus to be handed out to musicians. The idea is that music is at once exceptional (conceived in a secret recess of one mind, then delivered unto mortals) and produced by a process of copying and aspiring, sometimes tedious and mechanical, and sometimes rousing in itself. It is, in its kernel, quite clever.
The problem emerges in this idea’s transcription to screen. While Agnieszka Holland’s movie offers occasional enchantments, it also leans heavily on stiff explanatory dialogue, usually filtered through the awkward role of the fictional copyist, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger). She’s that most obvious movie device, an audience stand-in, by turns awed, upset, and/or put off by Beethoven’s broadly abusive persona. As his hearing wanes, he makes use of an ear trumpet when convenient and grows impatient with the slowness of everyone around him apparent in his world-weariness. And yet, he maintains a kind of dignity, if only in comparison to his vulgar surroundings, an apartment — in 1824 Vienna — filled with rats and filth and piss pots.
Anna Holtz (as Beethoven always calls her, a designation at once formal and, in his inflection, dismissive) is hired in a panic by his wits-ended assistant Schlemmer (Ralph Riach) and instructed to cater to the master’s every whim. A student at the local conservatory, she wants to write great music, and so imagines that copying for the master — who is about to unveil the Ninth Symphony — will help her in her career. On her first day, she does the unthinkable: she doesn’t just copy a page of music, she alters it.
Beethoven flies into a rage, of course, and Anna Holtz stands her ground, of course. Insisting that her change is what he must have intended, she is the faithful fan who knows best, so immersed in her idol’s oeuvre that she knows best what he means and anticipates his needs. As the sparks fly, they come to terms, a tentative, mutual admiration. The fact that she is a woman (in real life, Beethoven employed male copyists, as was the custom at the time) allows for chaste romance. It also allows for tedious and stereotypical harassment (Beethoven teases her and displays his derriere).
Little does he know that she is the heir he desperately desires. The childless Beethoven instead dumps his hopes on Karl (Joe Anderson), the nephew who steals money from his uncle in order to support his gambling addiction. Barely sketched, Karl remains something of a provocative cipher in Copying Beethoven, standing in doorways and flaunting his presumptive privilege before the very good girl Anna Holtz. Assuming she’s one of Beethoven’s whores on their first meeting, he grabs at her breasts and treats her with foppish disdain. She disciplines him, but more importantly, she becomes the composer he will never be.
Poor Karl doesn’t have a chance in this movie’s moral configuration, being that Anna Holtz not only “stands up” to Beethoven and so earns points for spunk, but also lives in a convent where her aunt is Mother Superior. Moreover, Anna Holtz has a beau, a stodgy but beautiful engineer (Matthew Goode), in order to demonstrate that she is not actually lusting after an old man. Still, the film posits an exceedingly complex threeway among the master, the nephew, and the copyist, climaxing in the performance of the Ninth, when Beethoven conducts an orchestra he can’t hear, by watching Anna Holtz conduct it from within the orchestra.
The scene is lovely, with glorious music (the soundtrack is Bernard Haitink’s 1996 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw, thrilling enough to make it not much matter that it doesn’t approximate an 1824 performance) and a cascade of dissolving frames and echoing images indicating the intensity of their collaboration. It also make the film’s point, that that copying is a form of art in itself, a way to refine, alter, and make art again.
As Anna Holtz mirrors Beethoven and he copies her, Karl watches from yet another doorway, his eyes glistening with regret and also appreciation: he will never be the composer his uncle wants him to be, but maybe Anna Holtz is that composer who emulates Beethoven, who can learn to hear what he hears. The film is unsubtle in this regard, as student and teacher articulate repeatedly what the visuals make plain: “You’re telling me,” Anna Holtz says during her instruction, “I must find the silence in myself to hear the music.” Yes, pronounces Beethoven, “The silence between the notes.”
Copying Beethoven descends from this point of the concert: its energy is never so interesting again, and its plot turns mostly irrelevant (do you really care whether Anna Holtz dumps her engineer?). But that one scene is nearly worth the price of admission, along with Harris’ performance. Whether Beethoven is drunk, explosive, pondering, or just saddled with silly language (“You are the key to my release,” Beethoven tells Anna Holtz, after describing the mortal prison in which he lives), Harris is inspired, inventive and nuanced. At times he appears to be performing in another movie, the better one that might have been.
Anna Holtz, however, remains rooted in the not-so-good movie, emblematic of its overstatement and clichés, its neglect of the silence between the notes. At the end of one of several arguments with her master, she cries out the most obvious interpretation of their relationship: “I suppose I love you!” Beethoven sighs, and sees more deeply. “No,” he says, “You want to be me.” She furrows her brow, earnest but at last, inconsequential.