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Ken's personal favorite
on 2 September 2013
Maverick British director Ken Russell made his name in the 60s at the BBC where he made several very good biopics of famous composers such as Delius, Debussy, Elgar and Richard Strauss. He continued in the same vein with full length features like The Music Lovers (Tchaikovsky) and Lizstomania (Liszt and Wagner). His most successful venture (as Russell himself averred) was undoubtedly Mahler (1974) in which for once his flamboyant visual excess is perfectly married with the opulent post-romanticism of his subject.
Gustav Mahler was an Austrian composer who was more famous as a conductor when he was alive, his music suffering half a century of neglect before the 1960s Mahler boom exploded courtesy of Leonard Bernstein's CBS recordings of the complete symphonies and song cycles. This was quickly followed by Luchino Visconti's Thomas Mann adaptation, Death in Venice (1971) in which the writer Gustav von Aschenbach is replaced by the composer and the film is consequently swamped with Mahler's music (particularly the adagietto from the fifth symphony). Russell's cheeky little biopic is a direct reply to Visconti's stuffy pretension in that Mahler's life is depicted in a series of fanciful and extremely funny flashbacks which play on different themes that wound through his life and seek to interpret the music itself.
The film is structured around Mahler (Robert Powell) journeying by train back to Vienna with his wife Alma (Georgina Hale) and the flashbacks show us his childhood where we encounter his violent inn keeper father (Lee Montague) who beats him up to the sound of the brass band of a nearby military barracks, and his escape into the surrounding woods to discover the sounds of nature. Military marches and the sounds of Mother nature permeate all of Mahler's music. We see his early married life with Alma as she rushes about the countryside silencing everything so that her husband can compose at his lakeside retreat, a device which underlines Mahler's use of bird song, church bells, folk melodies and dance, especially the Austrian landler. Then there is his suppression of Alma's talent as a composer herself, a theme which figures large in their later marital troubles - Russell's script is largely based on Alma's very biased biography of her husband. Mahler imagines his own funeral with Alma (a notorious adulteress playing to her equally flawed adulterer husband) doing a striptease on his coffin while her various lovers look on. We see the loss of his child and other members of his family and the insanity of his friend Hugo Wolf (David Collings) - the cost of being afflicted with an artistic gift. In fact fear of death (fate itself) overshadows the film as it does all of his music, especially his fear of the mighty 9. Beethoven, Bruckner and Schubert all died after completing 9 symphonies and Mahler tried to cheat fate by titling his ninth 'Das Lied von der Erde', but of course died after his official ninth, leaving his tenth incomplete.
Most startlingly of all we see Mahler's conversion from Jew to Catholic in a bid to get around arch anti-Semite Cosima Wagner to get the position as chief of the Vienna State Opera. Cosima (Antonia Ellis) is depicted as a goose-stepping Nazi dominatrix who forces Mahler to forge a sword, slay the dragon (a pig of course), eat pork and jump through a hoop of fire - all done, naturally enough, to Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries with awful made up English lyrics to match. Cosima Wagner didn't actually have anything to do with Mahler's appointment to the Vienna State Opera, but the facts that Mahler converted to Catholicism to get the post, that Cosima was an even more vicious anti-Semite than her celebrated husband and that it was an anti-Semitic smear campaign in the Viennese press which eventually forced Mahler out of the job, are all true enough. Russell here remains true to the spirit rather than the letter.
It goes without saying that the film is very brash and irreverent, but it's surprising how close Russell actually takes us to the nature of the music and how much from Mahler's life is illuminated by the very OTT romantic treatment. The performances are all admirable as is the use of the splendid Lake District locations that stand in for the Austrian countryside. The film was made on a tiny budget, but it never really shows - showpieces like the lakeside hut bursting into flames to the explosion of atonality at the center of the adagio of the tenth symphony, and the concluding outburst of the Alma theme from the first movement of the tragic sixth symphony as the couple alight from their train, really make sense.
It's surprising how much of the music is included in the film. Only the eighth symphony is ignored, an omission that's surprising as the 1909 Munich premiere was the crowning triumph of Mahler's whole composing career. It's even more surprising that Russell doesn't make anything of the affair Alma had with the architect Walter Gropius during the rehearsals for this particular event. The low budget also presumably precluded a depiction of Mahler's American years when he conducted the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, leading to conflict with Arturo Toscanini no less.
All in all though, the film is great fun - a wonderful introduction to Mahler for those new to his music, and a surprisingly insightful compendium of information for those who think they know their Mahler well. The DVD is good, though the aspect ratio is 4:3, not wide screen. I'm assuming that was how the film was initially released, but I'm not sure. The picture is very clear and the soundtrack superb, Mahler's music (Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouworkest, Amsterdam) sounding truly wonderful. At this price, Ken's personal favorite is worth picking up by anyone with an interest in classical music and British cinema. Too many of Russell's later films are so dire that it's refreshing to be reminded that once upon a time he really was one of our brightest and best talents. Mahler may very well be his finest achievement.