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Mahler is an interesting case. Whereas Ken Russell's films are either
just over the top (his theatrical films), or maybe even too subtle (his
television work), Mahler is both. Its closest companion may be always
the simple but exquisite Song of Summer, but there is that usual kitsch
and excess you can find without a magnifier from Lisztomania and other
What I'm trying to say is that if you find Russell's television work too tame, and The Devils and Tommy are just too much, Mahler might be your film. It's not Russell's best, but in this film he found a balance which is rare to him. It may be a slow and long film, but in the end game is wonderfully rich and profound in explaining the essence of artistry and creativity. And much like Michael Powell did to ballet dance in The Red Shoes, Russell doesn't just explain his subject matter in Mahler: he brings it alive. It's like the romantic Gustav Mahler himself made this film.
And, of course, there is the music! Much recommended to everybody.
I must confess ignorance in regards to the works of Ken Russell until just
recently. After viewing "Altered States" I was curious to see more of his
work and this little gem was the next film to come to my
What struck me first of all are the remarkable similarities between this film and any number of Kubrick's works. From technique to unexpected and striking visuals, and of course, the use of classical music to underscore the action. Though obviously that's a given considering the subject matter here.
I found the film to be simply mesmerizing. Rather than trying to be some sort of historical document on the life of Mahler, the film gives visual interpretation to Mahler's work, and does so beautifully.
I disagree with viewers who have claimed that this movie is
over-the-top and excessive, as some other Ken Russell movies. It is
true that the British director cultivated shock, gore and excessive
cinematography that often resembled heavy LSD hallucinations or a Bosch
paintings. But he felt he was only ahead of his time in the late 60's
and throughout the 70's. Prime examples of this are his Tommy,
Lisztomania and The Devils. But "Mahler" is actually his most tame and
restrained. I found the film genuinely moving and haunting. It's
slow-paced, quite talky and very very musical in nature. Robert Powell
stars as the anguished composer Gustav Mahler, Georgina Hale as his
wife Alma and Antonia Ellis as the dark and seductive Cosima Wagner.
The film is partially historic partially psychological and partially
dream-like. It is true that Mahler, who was born Jewish, converted to
Catholicism simply for the sake of landing a prestigious job as
conductor of the Vienna State Opera. His relationship with Cosima
Wagner, Richard Wagner's widowed wife, did in fact have something
detrimental about it. In the film, it's hinted they are lovers and that
Cosima has managed to isolate him from his wife and children. With the
music of Mahler and Wagner in the soundtrack, and fine performances by
the lead stars, this is indeed Ken Russell's most psychological works
of drama. Essentially, it's about the downfall of a man who has
compromised his ethics and sacrificed his religion for the sake of
money and fame.
Robert Powell, Antonia Ellis and Georgina Hale carry most of the movie. Alma, who was largely considered a big name in feminist history and a brilliant woman in her own right, felt eclipsed by the genius of Mahler. Their marriage was never happy and ended in divorce. Cosima Wagner was notoriously Anti-Semitic, in fact, it is said she was far more so than her husband Richard Wagner. Antonia Ellis does do a very over-the-top performance, at one point in a dream sequence even dressing up as a Nazi dominatrix in the quite hilarious silent film parody in which Mahler is converted into Catholicism. There is even a funny song to the strains of Wagner's Ride of The Valkyries. This and the Death Fantasy in which Mahler imagines he is being buried alive and Alma is dancing over his grave and carrying out numerous affairs are the only Russell elements that fall into excess. But most of the film is quite haunting and lovely to look at. Highly recommended as a Russell film to watch without judgment of his other works.
Yes, you had to have developed an appetite for Ken Russell's visions.
Mahler works beautifully for me. I happen to like Mahler's music and
historically, Russell, captures the juice of this man's genius.
Russell moves behind the music, into the skin of Mahler, his wife, Alma, and the tragic circumstances that surround them.
Mahler would have smiled when experiencing Russell's image of him. Thomas Mann's book, Death in Venice, is about Mahler, and Russell includes the railroad station scene, with the young boy and the business man, courting a bit, and then the camera, goes to Mahler, who understands whats going on here, and smiles, in amusement. Clever touch for Russell, but is most likely lost on the general audience. Not to say Mahler liked little boys, but his sexual orientation was ambiguous, at best.
Alma was like that, and the officer, whom she was having an affair, was most likely that way? Mahler went to see Freud over this affair in reality. Russell always takes us inside the psychological drama and visualizes, the inner Hell, Mahler feared regarding his wife and his coming death.
Alma had affairs after Mahler's death, and was a star f...ER, and had marriages and affairs with Europe's most brilliant geniuses, for real. She loved bright men, but loved herself, the most, I think? Later Erich Wolfgang Korngold, wrote a violin concerto for her, in Hollywood.
The film's tracking of the creative process regarding the music, is most likely right on, though the little composing hut, was not on the lake shore, but on a hill top, overlooking the lake.
Over all the film is historically correct, and emotionally, shows it as it most likely was for them as a famous couple. Alma did harbor jealousy, and stopped composing her music. Of late a CD has been released of her music and her music is acceptable, but pales compared to her husband's giant compositions.
I would have liked for Russell to include Richard Strauss's music, and their personal friendship. Both composers often talked about their troubles with their music and their wives. Strauss and Mahler are often similar in their musical genius, and understood each other's vision musically. It would have been nice to have the two together more in this film's history.
You have to have a taste for Mahler and Russell, to really get the humor and the brilliance that lies just beneath of surface. At least, Mahler, did not turn out to be another TOMMY...ha Bravo to Ken Russell and I am so glad he came along in my life time. Cast was perfect as well.
Mahler has sometimes been cited as the finest of Russell's composer
bio-pics, an informal series which began with several impressive works
made for television at the beginning of the 1960s. As such it falls
between the relative restraint of the black-and-white photographed
Gordon Jacob (1959) and the uninspired late Mystery Of Dr Martinu
(1993), another TV special that more or less finished the run. Elgar:
Fantasy Of A Composer On A Bicycle (2002), a revisiting of Russell's
celebrated early work (Elgar), seemed like a creative codicil. Like The
Music Lovers (1970), which preceded it, and Lisztomania (1975), which
followed, Mahler was made for the big screen. The larger budgets
involved allowed Russell the narrative luxuries of greater length and a
move to colour; but also to indulge a penchant for flamboyant fantasy,
kitsch and nudity.
The film takes place mostly as a series of flashbacks, experienced by the ailing composer as he travels to take up a last appointment in Vienna, accompanied by his wife Alma (Georgina Hale). Portraying the composer is Robert Powell who, showing a close resemblance to the subject, arguably does a far more sympathetic job than Richard Chamberlain (Russell's Tchaikovsky) or Roger Daltrey (Liszt). His memories prompted by his imminent mortality, as well as Alma's libidinous interest in a handsome soldier also on the train, Mahler dwells on several key episodes of his life, such as his early musical education, his conversion to Catholicism and a humiliating job interview for the Vienna Opera. Thus while the fatigue wracked composer's train journey is experienced as reality, his feverish recollection of a creative past is often hallucinatory and surreal - moments at which Russell's colourful staging of events is foremost.
Just how one takes the resultant mix of high culture and low camp is a matter of personal taste. "Why is everyone so literal these days?" complains Russell's disillusioned composer at one point. It is worth bearing this view in mind, as well as Mahler's later opinion that it is sometimes necessary to "see with the eyes of children... and hear with the ears of children." Literal or not, Mahler is definitely not for children, including as it does Nazis, naked cavorting, and some cod nightmare imagery in one characteristically overheated package. For this viewer, seeing the film again for the first time since the original release, the result is the same: I was entertained, if ultimately unmoved, by a work which may show the audience the way Russell sees his Mahler - but is far less convincing as to how *Mahler* saw his world. At the end of the day Russell's more extravagant stagings become a distraction rather than a revelation, the composer's creative neuroses coarsened by the director's very personal, baroque vision.
This 'problem' with Mahler is the same as with several of Russell's more ambitious films. The director's heavy handed use of not-especially-shocking imagery - in fact one doubts now whether, in most cases, it ever really was very alarming, more just in bad taste - usually done quickly and on a budget, drives home matters with a sledgehammer. On those occasions where Russell's approach has proved most successful, such as in The Devils (1971), disturbing imagery coincides most closely with the subject (religious hysteria and the inquisition) a reinforcement that benefits further from first-rate art direction (by Derek Jarman). In Mahler, to take a glaring example, the intrusion of black-uniformed Nazis into the composer's nightmare of premature burial - a sequence that culminates in a semi-nude Alma squatting over his death mask, is both crass and irrelevant. Similar doubts attend the conversion to Catholicism film within a film, featuring some laboured silent comedy - Powell as Mahler even does a Stan Laurel 'cry' at one point - including setups which perhaps inspired Tim the Enchanter's appearance in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, in cinemas a year later. The parodic intrusion of the Third Reich into a film about a composer might have made sense if the subject had been the notably anti-Semitic and pompous Wagner. Supporting an account of the insecure, frequently humiliated, Jewish, Mahler, its heavy handed and inappropriate nature is ultimately toe curling.
Fortunately, and even with all these shortcomings, Russell's film is rarely boring. Buoyed up with of large chunks of music, Mahler's sequence of colourful events moves along easily enough. Shot mostly on location in Russell's beloved Lake District, a lot of the film makes a fair pass of recreating Austria in the first decade of the last century. The most affecting moments for this viewer remain the quieter ones - Mahler alone in his summer house, conducting one of his great orchestral canvases in his head, or the quiet interlude with the doctor who confesses to being tone deaf and, ironically, is someone the composer feels he can trust most easily. Russell's recreation of Mahler's childhood is also interesting, as the young composer meets a puckish man in the woods (Ronald Pickup) who offers his timely advice that "The man who doesn't live in nature can't write a true note of music." This sequence is one of the few times that performances are allowed to grow for, squeezed between Russell's set pieces and Mahler's mammoth orchestrations, actors sometimes appear hard pressed to make an impression with quieter moments of dialogue. Perhaps Powell and Hale come off best as a couple towards the end of the film, as the composer delicately explains her role in his inspiration. It's a sensitive moment, bringing a note of intimacy often lacking elsewhere. In short this is a Mahler which is deeply flawed, if rarely dull, which at least is to Russell's credit and persistence as a maverick film maker.
Ken Russell made several films for the BBC on artists and musicians
like Fredrick Delius, the composer, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painter
and poet, and one of the founders of the Pre Raphaelite movement. The
Rossetti film features the late Oliver Reed in an engrossing
This Mahler film is quite good. I feared watching it because I
thought Ken Russell would make a circus of Mahler's tempestuous life, but
it's a fairly controlled foray, except for the aforementioned sequence with
Wagner's widow, BUT she was well acquainted with Hitler, and she never met a
Nazi she didn't like, so the scene with her was founded on fact.
Robert Powell, and the lovely Georgina Hale, give beautiful performances. I looked in their credits and see THEY ARE BARELY WORKING TODAY. Maybe their own choice or a preference of stage work. I can't believe they would pass up today's movie money. They have not appeared as far as I can see in any major movie project for years. I don't get it. Russell, if he worked with the editor fitting the music to the film, shows a real feeling for the music. Even today Mahler's music is a specially acquired taste, and if much of it sounds bizzaire today, think what it sounded like to listners in 1906. A special kudo must go to David Collings as the insane composer Hugo Wolf. An acting gem. Also no current acting credits. David where are you? We need guys like you, Robert Powell, and Georgina Hale.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Gustav Mahler slips in and out of fantasy and memory on a train ride
with his wife Alma on their way to Vienna. (I liked the segments on his
childhood best.) Roger Powell as the protagonist bears a certain
resemblance but hardly as close as some reviewers would have their
readers believe. Despite spirited performances by Georgina Hale (as
Alma) and Powell, this reviewer found the conversations between the
famous pair on art, life, and love neither particularly deep nor
riveting. This had a good side: it made the interludes of Russellian
excess less distractions than diversions.
Nevertheless, though portrayal of Cosima Wagner as a bumping and grinding proto-Nazi might have been hilarious in the 50s, by the 70s it was banal. I felt sorry for Powell having to appear in the same scene. The sight of the newly Catholicized Mahler dining on hog's head is disgusting enough (for some reason I was even more put off by the way he avidly washed it down with milk chugged from a pitcher, blithely breaking the injunction against mixture of meat and dairy, of course). But for me the worst transgression was less blatant, and came when Russell had what looked like an oom-pah hofbrau band, but a marching one, play a passage from the third movement of the first symphony, apparently oblivious to its lilting klezmer echoes. Now that's what I call offensive.
Incredibly to me, some reviewers see this flick as Russell's best, a place I would give to "Gothic", in which the mix of fantasy, excess, and reality (history) jells to perfection. A six mainly because I have a soft spot for the subject matter.
Mahler is the highlight of Ken Russells career. Renowned for his visual
flair, Mahler achieves an elegant beauty and emotional depth not found in
many of his feature films, while avoiding, mostly, his indulgent
By far his best composer biography (miles ahead of The Music Lovers or Lisztomania which both sink in their over the top depravity) Mahler is especially remarkable for the performance of the relatively unknown actress Georgina Hale - even though she won a BAFTA for this very role. Top marks to both director and actress.
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
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.
This Ken Russell 'biopic' follows the composer Gustav Mahler as, nearing the end of his life, he recalls his life and music through surreal dream sequences during a train journey. Like the great man's music, this film is at times intense, powerful, moving and beautiful. However, at other times it is confusing, indulgent and over-the-top, something which Mahler's music never was, I should add. That's Ken Russell I suppose, and if you can get past the tiresome dream sequences and focus on the imaginative ones (of which there are many) then you will really enjoy this underrated vision of musical genius. Russell conveys the feelings of awe and wonder of the musical world better than any other director in history. No doubt this is to do with his good track record of composer's films but also a deep personal investment into the subject matter. Robert Powell expertly plays the composer as an intense man beyond any human understanding of neurosis, filled with repressed anxiety. The film is excessive, almost irritatingly so, but ultimately filled with great moments.
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