Is Mahler (1974) 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 was run a few years ago by the Hendersonville Film Society, it divided the audience into two distinct camps—those who wanted to see more Ken Russell films and those who wanted to walk out on this one. 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 richest 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 $320,000—Mahler is one of those rare chances to see a filmmaker at work without a net. 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.
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.
The film is such a complex tapestry of memory, dream and framing stories that most viewers don’t even notice that Russell slips a memory of Mahler’s into one of Alma’s memories—and it really doesn’t matter anyway, because the film is so amazingly of a piece. This is filmmaking—and filmmaking of a kind we’ve rarely seen. When the film was first released critic David Sterritt, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, remarked that Mahler was a film “that throbs with life.” That struck me then—and strikes me now—as a perfect summation of this altogether wonderful work.