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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.
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on 25 June 2014
I first saw this film not long after it came out some forty years ago. I've wanted to get a copy for some time and so was delighted to see it available on DVD from Amazon.

It is important to realise that this is a Ken Russell film and not a docudrama. And so license is taken with some of the historical information for dramatic purposes. But his does not detract from the overall effect.

The film takes as it's basis a rail journey by Mahler to Vienna (his last?) with his wife Alma. This punctuates a series of flashbacks and dream sequences that provide insights into the man and, more particularly, his music.

The music is not all Mahler's. There is a sexually explicit extract from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and also a parody using the Ride of the Walkyries on Mahler's (pragmatic?) conversion to Roman Catholicism.

Another central theme is the failing relationship between Gustav and Alma and the emergence of Max Gropius on the scene. Aspects of this, particularly Alma's composing aspirations (actually appreciated by Gustav when it was too late), are not handled all that well.

But overall, as an attempt to provide some insights into Mahler's wonderful music, the film is worth watching.
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on 9 March 2011
This is a DVD of the famous Ken Russell Mahler film.The film is a classic and speaks for itself so no review of the creation is necessary from me. However there is a big problem with the DVD. It seems to be distributed and supplied by a foreign company (Dutch I think) who have added Dutch subtitles.Unfortunately there does not appear to be any menu or other means of getting rid of the subtitles which for an English person watching an English film is annoying to say the least.It prevents what would otherwise be afive star rating.
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VINE VOICEon 29 October 2006
Although Ken Russell was known as an admirer of the music of Gustav Mahler, I wasnt quite sure what he was trying to achieve here. Mahler's life was extremely complex, especially during his formative years as a composer and conductor in Vienna and in New York where he established himself as one of the all time great conductors despite many enemies and jealous rivals. Although he did have many admirers such as Bruno Walter and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. However, none of this is explored in the film. What the film does explore is his complex marriage to the beautiful Alma who bore him two daughters, one of whom died very young.

Alma who was much younger than Gustav when they married was a complex woman in her own right. They are often seen at loggerheads over his musical style which irritated her through her lack of understanding what Mahler was hoping to achieve and that was to bring a new style of music to the 20thC. The film takes place on a train journey with Mahler, now nearing to the end of his short life, (he was only 50 when he died of a throat infection which weakened his heart)is looking back on his career as a composer and conductor. Moreover, the relationship between him and his wife Alma is strained by Mahler's knowledge of her numerous affairs which are highlighted during certain scenes in the film. Indeed, the marriage only survived due to Mahler's intense love for her. However, his anguish at knowing of Alma's infidelity is highlighted by his later compositions especially with the unfinished Tenth Symphony which is one of his most advanced works and also one of his most emotionally profound.

Highlights of his music are played consistantly throughout the film with great effect and do enhance the drama and the numerous fantasy scenes especially with the absurd Cemetery scenes, and the scenes with the so called Valkirie on the mountain top with flames belching from a nearby cave. (Shades of Wagner's Siegfried.)

Take the film for what it is, a fantasy of one of the greatest composers who ever lived, and whose music is much admired throughout the world today. Maybe one day, some one just might make a real film of Mahler's extraordinary life, and until that happens, we will have to accept this film for what it is. Entertaining though which can be safely said, silly in parts, moving in others. Robert Powell is rather good as Mahler, although Georgina Hale is absolutely nothing like Alma. It is one of the films which you might either like, or detest.

The music used throughout the film is conducted by Bernard Haitink one of the greatest conductors of Mahler's music during the last thirty six years.
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on 14 September 2011
I think this is the best film Ken Russel has ever made.Robert Powells portraial of Mahler is brilliant in my opinion, but then, I think everything he does is brilliant so I gues I'm biased.
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Most of us who've taken an interest in 'our Ken', especially recently after his death and some fascinating documentaries popped up about the great man, know that he started out making TV documentaries about the Great composers.

So, obviously, he's in his element here and whilst I've not had chance to see the rarer and expensive of these, out of the ones I have, about Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), and Liszt (Lisztomania), 'Mahler' is the most straightforward, less contentious and 'messed with', shall we say...

Personally, I rather like it when Ken added his personal 'flourishes'. Neither being religious, nor from any target from his heavy symbolism, I'm never really offended by anything that he did. When it got ugly, or stupid, or at a tangent that took it away from the subject entirely, as he did big time in Lisztomania, that's different, of course.

Robert Powell is a perfect Gustav Mahler - a fairly delicate individual, who, with his little round glasses and curly hair, looks every bit the intellectual. Much being filmed in the Lake District, there's some stunning scenery and Ken's eye never fails us, stylistically, in period detail or in composition.

Not being a huge fan of Classical music, that side has less importance for me but the score always seems entirely apt and suitable. The sound quality on the DVD, being excellent on The Music Lovers, is a rather tinny mono-sounding affair, here, which takes the dramatic edge off it. You need to turn it up for the score to resonate in time with some of the flamboyant set pieces.

Ken is well known now, for having been the one who turned boring biographies of long-dead creators of music into living and breathing programmes, turning the way such were made on their heads, whilst at the BBC. I do prefer The Music Lovers slightly, as it's more fiery but Mahler has a beauty, soul and understanding that one might not expect from the red-faced bellowing Mr Russell. For those interested in Ken's work, or Robert Powell, or indeed the composer himself, this is essential.
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on 11 May 2012
Mahler is a brilliant & entertaining film with all the expected Russell extravagances. A must for any fan's collection. Great visuals & music.
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on 4 April 2014
This is a wonderfull film and one of the least outrageous from Russell's repertoir. It is an ideal introduction to the great composer. Not only does give a sample of some of his defining works but it attempts to look into the mind of the composer. It even explores the origins behind the distinctive tonality of his work. Influencing events throughout Mahler's life are also included. For such a complex subjec,, Russell always maintains interest by a pacey and diverse story line. What a gem!!
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on 24 October 2015
I first saw it on its release in 1974 and at that time it was fresh, new and a very good but not excellent biopic of the life, struggles and music of Mahler. I remember at the time being into Mahler 4 and had it on vinyl, there was only vinyl then. It is now a 42 year old film and shows its age, I am still giving it five stars and maybe just a tinge of that is the memory.
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on 27 February 2014
I'm not competent intellectually or artistically to talk seriously about this film. There are plenty of pro critics to do that. It's hardcore Ken Russell with great music and great acting. It's satirical, erotic, comic and disturbing. It's just about a work of genius to me. For sure I will view it again.
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