Mahler, written and directed by Ken Russell
Mahler is an exhilarating film, about a creative, haunted, phenomenal, sensitive, difficult composer- Gustav Mahler.
The film was nominated for the Palme D’Or at the most important Film Festival, Cannes, and that makes it at the very least one of the best motion picture of its year, 1974.
From the start, the feature is filled with worthwhile, intellectual, erudite references to masterpieces like Death in Venice, for the composer, as he waits in his train car, sees images of an older man, looking with love at the one who looks like Tadzio, the boy in the quintessential Thomas Mann work.
The composer remembers scenes from his childhood and we also have insight into his imagination, via the fabulations of the writer- director of course, who places on the big screen excerpts from childhood, the piano lessons that the young hero took, where his teacher talked about “Eine Kleine Kat Music”.
That instructor was not interested in hearing the child’s composition, stating that they need to stay in his mind and only there, adding that a monkey would play better, using only one hand and eating a banana with the other, all the time insisting on attention to elbows and the repletion of scales, scales, scales…
In the first few scenes, Mahler is interviewed by a journalist, who asks about the reasons why he left America, the reply being that the artist got tired of tall buildings and drinking sarsaparilla (was it?), the inquiry moving to what he prefers, conducting or composing, to which he replies that he conducts to live, but lives to compose…
The newspaper man continues his questioning with the problem of anti-Semitism, which will return in the film, and wants to know if this discrimination made the composer leave Vienna in the first place, in which Mahler would want to get the position of director of the Opera House, only to face opposition from Cosima Wagner.
When he lives in the country and creates in a small cabin, on the water, Gustav Mahler complains about the…loud noises, to which he refers as “as loud as a kindergarten” even if all there is around is the bird singing and other country sounds, making his wife protest that he had composed music about it.
Mahler says that he composes in a way that would allow humanity, if these sounds disappear and all that is left is desert, to have a notion of what they are, only what he composes is the essence of the sounds of nature.
We see the creator in a feeble state and one of the questions of the interviewer, who was only aloud a couple of minutes (!) concerned his deteriorating health, which may contribute to the irascibility of the already delicate man, who is upset with the noise of the wheels in the train, the fact that they have a compartment right near the toilet and finally by the loud sounds of the troop gathered to welcome him in the station, where he runs to the bathroom to avoid the hosts, telling his wife that she could say that this “gives him the shits”…
When he was a child, relatives in his family discussed about other famous Jewish composers and musicians, such as Franz Liszt, and one of them is awed by the sums that one performer can obtain from a concert, 800 krona are then multiplied to get the sums per month and then divided to get the rate per minute of performance.
At a stage, Mahler is somewhat scolded for his rearrangements of Beethoven’s works and he replies that he wishes he would have someone to do the same for him, once he loses his hearing, like the his predecessor.
He has fights with his wife, over her alleged philandering, her affairs with Oskar Kokoschka and others, indeed, the woman would become the lover of the painter and later of Walter Gropius, but it must be said that Mahler had been abusive, when he dismissed her compositions as unworthy and, in the film, told her that he actually wants to protect her because he knows what rejection can mean, referring to the mad Hugo Wolf.
Gustav Mahler visits the latter in a mental institution, where he thinks he is the emperor Franz Joseph, but at one stage, he wipes his bottom with his compositions, talking to his visitor about his Jewishness, as the reason why he does not get the job of director of the Opera, as long as Cosima Wagner opposes it.
In this feature, we have long, interesting, beautiful, Avant garde scenes with courageous choreography, one of which has Mahler, surely in his dreams and nightmares, walking with the Star of David, towards a cliff, on top of which, Cosima Wagner appears in what looks like fascist gear, near the cross.
Cosima Wagner, like her famous husband, was a fervent anti-Semite and the ballet, pantomime that is placed within portrays the sensational composer as he tries to ascend to a potion that he deserves, but is denied on account of his supposed religion, which he thinks of denying, if that is what it takes.
I will become a Catholic, says Gustav and there is pressure on him, because at one stage, he is the only bread winner in the household and, when other siblings pressure Otto Mahler, the brother who also tries to compose, without much success, the latter commits suicide and leaves a note:
One less mouth to feed…
Gustav Mahler has some other arguments, they seem not to end in stages, with his spouse over the title he had chosen for a piece, called The Death of Children, which made the wife accuse him of being ruthless, selfish and thinking only of his damn music and not at all of his family, for which he does not care…
The composer tries to explain that this is not true and the title has another meaning, it is about the death of innocence, the child within all of us, but geniuses are seldom, if ever completely, understood by ordinary people.