Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch) – Movie Review

A funny title for a film that is as serious as psychosis, but Mahler never sounded better.

This intimate and, at times, erotic yarn by writers/directors’ Felix and Percy Adlon is the fictional biopic of Gustav Mahler. More to the point, it is the story of Mahler and his wife Alma, a woman entirely too hot for him to handle.

While Mahler approached his work with mathematical precision, Alma’s life was run more like a traveling crap game, with the dice consistently loaded in her favor.

The film is lusciously photographed and entertaining enough to watch but it starts off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. The title suggests a comedy and the film is a tragedy. It is the tragic story of one of the greatest composers and conductors of all time flailing against everything and everybody, except his daughter who is taken from him by scarlet fever.

Mahler had to struggle just to get his material performed in the time in which he wrote it. It was considered excessive and scorned by many, including the moneyed upper class who could snap an artist’s career with the folding of their opera glasses. Even worse, Mahler was never able to come to terms with the intimacy and respect that are part and parcel of the relationship with one’s spouse.

If the film’s first mistake is the title, the second mistake, somewhat more forgivable, is a patchy screenplay and some odd screen presentations. For viewers with a speck of romance, the film is wonderful to watch. The production values are high and the costumes, music, sets and locations are a feast. In the hard-to-figure department, conventional narrative is interspersed with segments of out-of-frame monologues of characters simply telling the story.

For example, Alma Mahler’s mother recounts scenes of Alma’s reactions during dramatic parts of her marriage to Gustav, instead of, or in addition to, those scenes being acted out. Not only is this done for no perceptible reason, the sequences interrupt what is otherwise a fun melodrama. Framing the interspersed monologues in portrait orientation on the wide screen takes the technique beyond the pale.

Another cinematic gaff is the switch to black and white towards the end of the film when Gustav and Alma climb wordlessly up a massive rock slab, apparently dramatizing the end of their intimacy. The rock is impressive and the scene could be true but it is too out of context. The story falls aside as the audience tries figure out the photography.

The fact is, Mahler is a trendy subject right now and many film viewers are interested in knowing about him. The movie does not have to be funny and it certainly does not have to be experimental. The straight story would do, especially when accompanied by the shamelessly erotic scenes of Alma Mahler (played by Barbara Romaner) in her early days with her piano teacher and her scenes with artist Gustav Klimt (Manuel Witting).

Not to mention her later days with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (Friedrich Mücke). No question, she was a sensual woman.

More to the point, Alma was a talented composer who was seriously overshadowed by her husband. In the film’s depiction he tells her, bluntly, that he wants a wife and not a collaborator. Towards the end of their marriage her work was published and is still being performed today.

Speaking of music, the film is infused with works from Mahler’s 4th, 5th and unfinished 10th symphonies. This is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and is an outstanding sound track.

Critics of the film will say to go to a concert conducted by Mr. Salonen and forget the film, but that is not the point. One should do both. Hear the music and see the film. There is a good film here, fun to watch with great period costumes and sets. The adventure in the Mahler time machine is worth the trip.

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Directed and Written by: Felix O. Adlon and Percy Adlon
Starring: Johannes Silberschneider, Barbara Romaner and Karl Markovics 
Release Date: NY Jewish Film Festival—no release date as of Jan. 5, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 98 minutes
Country: Germany / Austria
Language: Germany with English sub-titles
Color: Color

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