Mahler (1974) is a film that quite literally explodes into life — with a little help from that wonderful and terrifying outburst of sound late in the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Is it the best of Ken Russell’s composer biographies? I’m inclined to say yes. But even if it isn’t, it’s undoubtedly one of the finest films ever made on the life of a composer—or indeed any artist. When the film played briefly in a very limited number of cities in the U.S. in 1975, Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt said that Mahler “throbs with life.” Despite Sterritt’s enthusiasm, it polarized both critics and audiences. It’s that kind of film, and Russell’s that kind of filmmaker, which, of course, is partly why he’s one of the greats. Mahler is from Russell’s greatest period of filmmaking and is the start of what, for me, are his three greatest works: this, Tommy and Lisztomania (the latter two both from 1975). The three films form a kind of stylistic trilogy that push the boundaries of filmmaking to a degree that has rarely been equaled, and never been topped.
Made for very little money—about ₤160,000—Mahler is one of those rare chances to see a filmmaker at work without a net. It has been slated as a more ambitious co-production with Germany, but the Germans pulled out at the last minute, leaving Russell to shoot the film quickly and without leaving England. (Russell’s beloved Lake District in Cumbria ended up playing the Bavarian Alps, while the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society in Sussex provided a period train traveling a stretch of tracks about 11 miles long provided the setting for the framing story.) A professionally created film meant for theatrical release made for that amount of money (roughly half the cost of an hour-long U.S. TV show from the same era) is pretty much a do-it-yourself affair. Ironically, it would go on to win the Best Technical Achievement award at Cannes. Money isn’t everything.
The film is a deceptive work that looks at once complex and simple. On the one hand, it is very simple indeed. Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) and his wife Alma (Georgina Hale) are on a train that is taking them back to Austria, following Mahler’s stint as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Their marriage is not in good shape, nor is Mahler’s health, and as the trip progresses the two have memories and fantasies of what their lives have been—and of how they ended up in their current state. In other words, the film is an interweaving of memory and dreams and projections that’s given a form by a framing story. But this isn’t your normal framing story—and these certainly aren’t your usual flashbacks.
There’s a good deal more to the framing story than just a structure. Not only are the scenes on the train absolute marvels in technical terms (using wide-angle lenses and mostly natural light on an actual moving train afforded Russell some of his most beautiful images), but the content of the scenes is fully as important as the flashbacks. Nothing is without its point—even to the positions of the characters. While Mahler is constantly depicted looking away from the engine, Alma tends to be looking toward it. She has a future to look toward; he has not. When he finally seems to be looking forward, well…that belongs to the film.
The fantasies in the film are definitely startling—and that’s announced from the very beginning where Alma is depicted as a creature trying to emerge from a chrysalis on a stony beach, making her way toward a stone head of Mahler and kissing it. Later fantasies are sometimes very short interpolations that serve to delineate the characters—as when Alma is presented as being little more than Mahler’s shadow. Others—especially a lengthy sequence in which Mahler envisions his own funeral and the more controversial sequence where his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism is presented as a silent movie—are complex, elaborate affairs.
Not all of the fantasies are clearly defined as such. There’s a splendid scene early in the film that isn’t quite fantasy in the normal sense of the word, but which is certainly a stylized depiction of the event, where Alma runs about the countryside trying to quiet the sounds that are disturbing Mahler’s composing. It’s also a sequence that works on more than one level in that it’s a breathless depiction of the act of creation, but it’s also one of the film’s many instances that illustrate the subjugation of Alma as a person in her own right to the service of Mahler and his art, making the scene more than a simple celebration of creativity. It also recognizes the price that is often paid—not always by the creator himself—for that creativity.
One of the most moving and striking sequences in the film—where a heartbroken Alma has a “funeral” for a song she’s written—isn’t really a fantasy at all. Rather it’s a fantasticated memory—and interestingly, it’s not set to Mahler’s music, but to Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. Why not a Mahler composition? God knows, it’s not like there’s any shortage of funeral marches in the man’s symphonies. My take is that Alma’s not being let off the hook here for letting Mahler squelch her own dreams, and Russell’s conveying that by using a piece of music that is hardly shy of self-dramatizing.
There is so much to Mahler that it’s impossible to do it justice here. This is a deeply personal film. In some ways, it verges on the autobiographical. There are intimations of Russell’s own solitary childhood in the sequences with young Mahler (Gary Rich). The troubles in the Mahler marriage bear more than a passing resemblance to the ones in Russell’s own fraying marriage at the time. Moreover, it’s as much about Russell’s response to Mahler’s music as it is about Mahler. And for Russell, perhaps the cherry on the top was in getting to George Colouris as Mahler’s doctor in the last scene. Here was a chance to work with an actor who had been in Citizen Kane, one of his favorite films and one that had great impact on his approach to film. But all these things are part of the tapestry — nothing stands out as arbitrary — so that it’s all of a piece.
The Asheville Film Society is showing Mahler Wednesday, April 22, at 7:30 p.m. in at The Carolina Asheville as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Special guest Lisi Russell (Ken Russell’s widow) will introduce the film with Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.