(UK - 1974)

by Alfred Eaker

Cast: Robert Powell, Georgina Hale, Lee Montague, Miriam Karlin, Rosalie Crutchley
Genre: Biography/Drama
Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Ken Russell
Cinematography: Dick Bush
Composer: -

This is Ken Russell's most personal film, and he admirably does Gustav Mahler proud by refusing to treat the composer with phony reverence. Mahler is no plaster saint here. Instead, he is a neurotic, obsessive Jewish composer, a hen-pecked husband and an artist whose drive stems from the flesh. Unknown to him at the time, actor Robert Powell's role, as the composer, was his audition to play one Jesus of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli three years later. Powell's Mahler is not the Mahler of a Mahler cult. Mahler's writing is clearly an immense struggle, as is his relationship with his wife, family, colleagues and admirers.

Russell pays Mahler homage in not succumbing to the type of pedestrian bio pic cultists tend to favor. That type of bio treatment can be seen in Richard Attenborough's "Chaplin" (1992), a well intentioned but hopelessly unimaginative film one expects from a "fan." Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" (2007) takes the opposite route in her stubborn insistence that the Beatles are not sacred and, thus, aptly produced a film as experimental as the Beatles were themselves (she did Stravinsky and Shakespeare the same honors in 'Oedipus Rex' 1993 and 'Titus' 1999).

Ever the renegade spirit, Russell, like Taymor, digs into his highly personal interpretation of the art's core. "Mahler" opens to the first movement of the existential Third Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink) juxtaposed against the composer's hut on the lake bursting into Promethean flames. Mahler's mummified wife, Alma (the resplendent Georgina Hale) emerges from a cocoon on the beach and crawls on jagged rocks, struggling to free herself of her bindings. Atop the rocks is a bust of her husband, which she embraces and kisses. This dream imagery is explained by a terminally ill Mahler to Alma, who is not amused and misinterprets the dream as symbolic of a marital power struggle. Mahler himself fatalistically interprets the dream as one signifying her birth, made possible by his inevitable, impending death. The entire film takes place on Mahler's final train ride and is interwoven with dreams and flashbacks, piling one existential layer upon another.

Mahler is returning home to Vienna after a disastrous season in New York. Mahler was ousted for his unorthodox ways by a Big Apple accustomed to Toscanini's literalism. However, Mahler is not about to publicly go into the reasons for his return home, especially with a meddlesome reporter who takes the composer's answers strictly at face value. " Why is everyone so literal these days?" Mahler retorts, dismissing the hack interviewer. Instead of focusing on documentary points, Russell probes the visions and a past idiosyncratically filtered through Mahlerian hues which are, in turn, filtered through Russell's equally idiosyncratic interpretations.

Mahler espoused big and when asked his religion, he answers defiantly, "Composer." Indeed, Russell (himself a convert) probes Mahler's sell-out conversion to Catholicism and, clearly, this was strictly a career move on the composer's part in a blatantly anti-Semitic society. Russell does not shy away from criticism in this sequence (filmed in silent film aesthetics). The cross of Christ and the star of David are placed with the Nazi cross in an enshrined cave. Mahler bows before money and Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis dressed as an S & M Nazi she-devil) who rewards his rejection of Judaism with a roasted non-kosher pig, which Mahler bites into with wild abandon. Predictably, Mahler proves to be as agitated a Christian as he was the agitated Jew.

No suffragist, Mahler has been as demanding on his wife as he is on orchestra, insisting that she forgo her own aspirations for composition, in silent servitude to his art, himself, and their children (in that order). That is a hard thing for Alma to forgive, but she also feels her husband's composition of "Kindertotenlieder" (Songs on the Death of Children) was a case of unforgivably tempting fate, which lead to the death of their beloved daughter. Alma consistently is tormented with the image of herself as pedestrian shadow to the genius Gustav. She is left at the bottom of the stairwell as fans adore her returning husband, emphasized by a funeral march movement straight out of Poe. Alma rewards Gustav for all this with an impassioned affair (one of many) and it is a feverishly ill, insecure, humiliated and desperate Mahler here who is trying to win back his wife. Powell and Hale are superb in their roles. Hale is delightfully fickle, icy, frustrated, wayward, and conveying every fiber of a woman loved by the artisans. Powell looks the very image of terminal sickness, especially in a symbolic vignette with the reaper facing him in the form of a female African passenger (in voodoo dress) who likens his music to a dance with death. In one sequence Mahler is depicted as a (Stan Laurel-like) clown and Russell spares no one in the funeral nightmare, fittingly choreographed to what many consider Mahler's most surreal work; the Seventh Symphony.

Russell's film mirrors much in the Seventh. It is a five movement work which begins with an allegro that is part kitsch Viennese waltz, part grotesque military march, energetic and, finally, bittersweet. This opening is followed by the first night music; a child-like walk through the night, replete with cowbells, giddy dance and, ending with silence. The third movement is the phantasmagoric scherzo which is, essentially, another night movement that is, by turns, amusing and frightening. A second, amorous night movement follows the scherzo. The Rondo finale is a psychedelic pageant which many critics feel dissipates into complete banality and can be a fitful assertion of life or a dance til your death frenzy.

Naturally, Russell utilizes the scherzo for Mahler's overheated funeral, brought on by Mahler's heart attack, but the elemental structure of the entire seventh could be seen as kind of blue print for the whole of Russell's film. Alma mockingly spreads her legs before her dead husband's coffin and follows that with a nude, coarse grinding strip with Teutonic beefcakes. Her lover, Max (Richard Morant), represents all of her lovers and he is decked from head to toe as a storm trooper. Gustav has been buried alive, but this is of no concern to Alma who is lusted after and sensuously pawed over, only now, after she has emerged from her husband's domineering shadow. Mahler is cremated in an oven, but his eyes remain untouched to witness her having the time of her life after his demise, which climaxes with Alma having sex with a gramophone. High art, low camp, sex and death. How better to serve up Gustav Mahler? Mahler's epic works can be a tantalizing, self-absorbed, seemingly disparate mix of banality and nobility, the profound and the asinine, the intimate and the boisterous, sincere seeking drenched with equally sincere cynicism, and, finally, insatiable curiosity permeated with a whiff of pathos, or, often, deadly bathos.

Composer Arnold Schoenberg hailed the Seventh as the death of romanticism, but he was only half correct. Mahler was still the romantic and Russell is equally vivid in that depiction as well. Mahler truly loves his wife above all, and he touches a smile when silently looking away from the train (as he often and tellingly does) to observe a couple deep in love at the terminal.

Despite our knowledge of Mahler's imminent fate shortly after, his tumultuous relationship with his wife and his obsession with her many infidelities, fear of his own mortality, his hallucinatory, self-indulgent expressions, his pathos laden memories of the past, his insincere conversion, his child-like questioning of existential themes, and his fevered, zealous drive, it is Mahler's buoyant embrace of life that capsulate Russell's wonderfully symbolic, baroque vision of an undeniably great and influential artist.



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