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Beethoven's Hair

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Jody Shapiro, Larry Weinstein, Jessica Daniel
Directed by Larry Weinstein
VHS, color and b&, 84 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Music, Physiology, Health Sciences

Reviewed by Bonnie Jo Dopp, Performing Arts Library, University of Maryland

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 9/6/2006

This suspenseful nonfiction film is based on Russell Martin’s bestselling book, Beethoven’s Hair (NY: Broadway Books, 2000), which told a tale of forensic detection that at last answered the question: what ailed the deaf and gastro-intestinally ill Beethoven, and ultimately led to his death? Two stories are presented: an historic one set in Beethoven’s lifetime and into the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth, and a contemporary one from the years after 1994. Central is a substantial lock of Beethoven’s hair and its journey from father to son in the Hiller family, its mysterious appearance in Denmark in 1943, its sale at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994 to a group of American Beethoven admirers who donated most of it to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose University, and its scientific testing for what it could tell the world about the great composer’s constitution at the time of his death. As they were in the book, the stories unfold in tandem, with scenes from the past alternating with commentary from people living today. Results of an early test on the hair are revealed: no sign of morphine. Despite being in tremendous pain, Beethoven evidently refused treatment with the most common analgesic of his day: to continue composing, his art being his reason to live, he needed a clear head.

Ira Brilliant, a prime mover behind the purchase of the hair, describes its provenance to school children and later explains why, as a non-musician, Beethoven’s music means so much to him. The Danish owners of the hair from 1943 to 1994 speak of what they do and do not know about how it came to them (a mystery that remains unsolved). An American woman who, during the last years of his life was Ferdinand Hiller’s grandson Erwin’s closest companion says that he told her his father Paul gave the lock to a museum. (She also reports that he was such a convincing actor that though he was raised in German Europe, Hollywood knew him only as a French character actor and would not offer him parts where he might have played a German.) A particularly touching segment of the film comes toward the end, when Ken Kemner, a scientist who helped determine the chemistry of Beethoven’s hair and thus uncover the main secret of the composer’s misery, speaks of his feelings about taking part in that discovery. He mentions that Australian Andrew F. Hobday learned about Beethoven’s symptoms from news stories about the results of Kemner’s and his colleagues’ work. Hobday, who had symptoms similar to Beethoven’s, expresses gratitude that when his doctors then tested him, he received the same diagnosis the scientists had given Beethoven. The difference is that now, the condition can be treated. Hobday’s quality of life has improved profoundly and made him sympathize deeply with Beethoven’s pain and suffering, which he articulates sensitively. The point is made repeatedly in the film that Beethoven requested an autopsy and intense study of his remains in order that people could better understand what made him as he was (not only deaf and repeatedly ill, but subject to temperamental rages that he could not himself fathom). Lessons learned 170 years after his death from hair that had grown from his own scalp helped save the life of at least one other person, and for all who worked on this problem, that outcome is one more way, in addition to repeated performances of his transcendent music, that Beethoven remains a living spirit, active in today’s world.

The superbly edited film uses Weinstein’s typical docudrama technique for the historic bits: actors impersonate Beethoven, composer and musician Ferdinand Hiller (who, at age 15, cut the lock of hair from Beethoven’s corpse’s head in 1827), Hiller’s son Paul, who received the lock as a gift a few years before his father’s death, and significant people in their society. Far more time is given over to narratives from the contemporary players in the story: Ira Brilliant and his collection of Beethoven memorabilia, musicologists and curators who specialize in Beethoven, scholars of the history of medicine, forensic investigators expert in hair analysis, various Danes (one, a Jew who survived a Nazi concentration camp), and Dr. Alfredo “Che” Guevara, a major investor in the lock who plays recordings of Beethoven symphonies in his operating room and throws a large Beethoven birthday bash annually.

Effective use is made of clips from some classic Beethoven films, including a silent film from 1918, Martyr of His Heart, with Fritz Kortner playing Beethoven, a French film, Un grand amour de Beethoven (1936), with Harry Baur (tortured to death by the Gestapo in Paris in 1943 after attempting to secure his Jewish wife’s freedom from arrest) playing the tortured composer, and an Austrian film, Eroica (1949) with German actor Ewald Balser as Beethoven. Ferdinand Hiller’s grandson, transformed into ‘Frenchman’ Marcel Hillaire when he resumed his acting career in the US, is presented in a comic scene from Sabrina (1954) where, as a Parisian cooking school instructor, he attempts to teach Audrey Hepburn “the correct way how to crack an egg.” Dramatic scenes from the Danish film A Day in October (1991) enhance the telling of heroic action Danes took to protect their Jewish neighbors and even refugees during World War II. Archival footage from WW II appears sparingly as does footage from professional filming done at the time urologist “Che” Guevara, suited up in scrubs and using surgical tools, opened the framed locket that had held the hair since 1911. Visual variety also comes from shots from a few actual ‘home movies’ (evidently not Weinstein fabrications), TV news shows, and promotional material that explains the inner workings of the Advanced Proton Source at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, where final results of the study of Beethoven’s hair were obtained. Segments of many well-played Beethoven works are on the soundtrack (some performers are also shown) as are a couple of Ferdinand Hiller pieces. In English; German, Danish, and French portions have English subtitles.

A splendid film for people who care about Beethoven and modern medicine. In case either music historians or scientists doubt whether the hair in question was actually Beethoven’s, subsequent testing of bone fragments absolutely known to have belonged to him produced the same results. This film can sit comfortably with other documentaries in library collections and is absorbingly accessible enough to be used in library film programs for general audiences.


  • Festival Director's Prize, Golden Prague International Television Film Festival
  • Best Direction, Writing, Sound, Gemini Awards