Ludwig is about two mad kings, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Luchino Visconti, who made the picture. The latter is only figuratively true, of course, but along with Ludwig's disintegration, we can see Luchino's.
The first mad symptom is the choice of this mad subject. This is a historical epic without a hero (like Nicholas and Alexandra), a central figure but no protagonist. Two hours and 53 minutes, acres of scenery, brigades of actors, all to detail what is only a case history, not a drama, let alone a tragedy….
Is Visconti wreaking one-man revenge for the Axis? Or is he, as an Italian friend of mine maintains, simply jealous of German grandeur?
The way of transgressors is hard, says the Old Testament, and Visconti doesn't make it any easier. We plunk plunk plunk along in a story without character or theme or narrative structure. Very obviously there has been a lot of chopping and patching of the film, which contributes to a general sense of lunacy. (p. 183)
[The] whole film seems as mad as its subject—in every way but one. It is gorgeous. (p. 184)
[Visconti,] former artist and latter-day mad charlatan, understands the theater in an old-fashioned sweeping-entrance and delayed-exit way. (See how Ludwig leaves the all-night drinking party with the young men—pausing in the open door and looking back.) Visconti miscalculated badly in his choice of subject but he understands that he's dishing up what used to be called "servant-girl theater": thrills of luxury for the lowly. He lays it on with a mink-covered trowel. (pp. 184-85)
Expect no sense. Shut your ears. (Besides the English, some Wagner gets murdered on the soundtrack.) Go to see a series of magnificent film-clips, and you can have a good time. It doesn't matter in the least when you come or go or how long you stay. (p. 185)
Stanley Kauffmann, "'Ludwig'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 168, No. 13, March 31, 1973), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 183-85.