Charlemagne resurrects a ruler, who, as the ‘father of Europe’, created an empire whose traces extend into the present. What was fought for and invented, thought and believed under Charlemagne has determined European society and culture up to today. Yet, everything we know about Charlemagne’s life is based on the writings of his court chroniclers, who had to glorify the emperor. It is only new research approaches and modern forensic methods that have unearthed details revolutionising the image of the Frankish emperor cherished by generations. They testify to the dark sides of a ruler who owed his successes to unscrupulous brutality and political intrigue.
Based on the latest insights, Charlemagne retells the Frankish emperor’s biography in keeping with the state of art of research. A blend of historical search for clues and complex staging unfolds all the important points in his life. Here, the film demonstrates that the political level of his rule cannot be separated from the private one. Again and again, it was women from Charlemagne’s immediate environment who decisively influenced his political decisions. And, besides the women, it was male rivals who challenged Charlemagne’s rule.
The film opens with Charlemagne’s youth and the struggle for the succession to the throne in France he waged against his brother Carloman. Queen Bertrada attempts to mediate between her quarrelling sons, because she is afraid for the Frankish empire. Initially, Charlemagne seems to be responsive to his mother’s course of reconciliation, but when Carloman dies under mysterious circumstances, Charlemagne reaches out to grasp sole rule in Europe. Ruthlessly, he now bets on war instead of diplomacy and embarks on a war against the Saxons that will cost him 33 years of his life. It becomes clearer and clearer that Charlemagne’s well-equipped troops are no match for the guerrilla tactics of the Saxon tribes. When all military measures fail, Charlemagne buys the Saxons’ favour. This gambit gives him carte blanche to plot an intrigue against the Vatican and obtain the imperial crown.
He has now reached the peak of his power. But despite all the preparations Charlemagne makes for a successor, his empire is already doomed. On his death, his empire crumbles to dust…