Moving Pictures
Jul 08, 2024, 06:27AM

Ken's Classical Fit

Mahler (1974) is an uneven mish-mash for director Ken Russell, showing what he does best and what he does worst.

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The commercial failure of director Ken Russell’s 1972 film Savage Messiah, about the sculptor Henri Gaudier’s relationship with writer Sophie Brzeska, deterred Russell not one whit. He soon signed a deal to make yet more biopics based on the lives of great artists, planning a series of six films about classical composers with producer David Puttnam; two were completed before Russell and Puttnam fell out with each other. The first, Mahler, came out in 1974. It’s interesting because it’s so characteristic of Russell: his strengths, his weaknesses, and his favorite themes.

It skips around in time, using a train trip as a framing sequence for a series of flashbacks and dream-visions. The desperately-ill composer Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) is traveling by train to Vienna with his wife, Alma (Georgina Hale). We don’t know this at first; the movie begins with a cabin by a lake exploding, and a man screaming over the flames as the opening titles roll, and then the camera panning over rocks until it finds one with a human face and then as music plays a woman pulls herself out of a cocoon. And Mahler wakes up, and we find out he’s on the train, and he’s at odds with his wife.

It wouldn’t be right to say the film settles down, though. The frame of the train trip is slight, without much of a dramatic arc, not enough to contain the memories, dreams, and reflections that follow. Mahler’s uneasy with the adulation received at each stop the train makes, doesn’t like the comments people make about his music, has heart trouble and the train doctor sets to work on him. And he argues with his wife.

In theory, their tense present-day relationship should make the flashbacks, in which we see their love in its fullness, touching. In practice, the effect’s obvious and calculated. Extended scenes of Mahler’s youth are extraneous, giving context for the character that’s narratively useful but not dramatically engaging.

More interesting are the extravagances of the film: the dream sequence at the start, for example. Later, a seemingly straightforward sequence of Mahler visiting a dignitary turns around when we find out he’s gone to an insane asylum and nothing is what we thought it was. Mahler’s fears of Alma’s infidelity come out in another berserk dream sequence. And there’s the extended scene when Mahler converts to Christianity to gain the approval of Cosima Wagner and a place at court; Nazi imagery, silent-film techniques, and bombastic music combine in a fetishized and jaw-dropping sequence.

Russell’s movies frequently had the feel of anthologies, collections of set-pieces loosely stitched into narratives, and so it is here. That the film is more-or-less coherent is remarkable. Even in the more realistic scenes transitions and editing choices are jarring—not visually, but narratively. You never know what’s coming next. That uncertainty gives the film a coherence. When anything can happen, you’re not surprised when anything does.

It’s a Ken Russell piece in other ways, too: once again we see a male genius smothering the artistic ambitions of the woman in his life. And while Mahler’s more calculating and less sympathetic than Gaudier in Savage Messiah, he proclaims a similar view of the importance of art. Russell, who never shied away from big themes, also throws thoughts on God and death into the film. As is so often the case with Russell’s movies, it’s difficult to tell how seriously the director’s taking things, and how seriously the audience should.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, but in this case the pacing’s more awkward than in Russell’s best work. Moreover, while the acting’s solid, Mahler’s character doesn’t cohere. The development of his religious cynicism is underplayed, and arguably undercut later in the film. And the death of one of his children is inadequate as an explanation for the mysteries the movie poses about his character.

Russell wrote the script, so presumably knew what he wanted to do visually. He and cinematographer Dick Bush produce, as usual, striking and memorable images. They also push the limits of what contemporary film technology could do, particularly in how the camera moves. Special effects look like special effects; there’s a conscious and deliberately visible artifice to the movie.

Again, that’s a specialty of Russell’s—the entire Cosima Wagner scene is the most outré kind of camp. Whether that undermines the grand themes the film’s nominally embracing, or whether it makes things more complex by deepening the irony of those themes, is something Russell’s willing to leave up to the viewer. In this case, I think the camp stands out because the grand themes are otherwise underdeveloped.


Mahler’s changing view of God is raised in a few different scenes, and then dropped. The anti-Semitism he faces is mentioned, and builds to the Cosima sequence, but doesn’t add much to his overall character. The main through-line of the film is Mahler and Alma’s relationship, and by extension how it affects Mahler’s music, but that relationship’s twists and turns are flattened by being too obvious.

At the end happiness and tragedy coexist for a moment, making a blunt but memorable conclusion. It’s right for this film, which comes off as an interesting curiosity with bravura moments. It never gets to grips with its subject’s depths, remaining clever but inessential. Still, if it’s superficial, underneath that superficiality is an absolute mastery of film technique. It’s very much a Ken Russell movie, and interesting as an example of what he did poorly, and what he did very well, and what he did that nobody else could imagine doing.


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