The 1974 film, Mahler, opens with a stunning shot on a beautiful little hut sitting at the end of a pier that overlooks an idyllic lake. Suddenly, the hut bursts into flames. Two children watch, both with oddly happy expressions on their face. A nude woman breaks free from a white cocoon while a rock that looks oddly like a face appears to watch her.
Suddenly, the scene changes to a train that’s traveling through Europe in the early 20th century. Traveling on the train is Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) and his wife, Alma (Georgina Hale). Every time the train stops, a crowd of people gathers and tries to get Mahler’s attention. Mahler, however, is obviously ill. Obsessing on death, he has Alma draw the shades.
The film switches back and forth, from the conventional train setting to extremely stylized views of what one can only presume is taking place in Mahler’s head. When Mahler has a heart attack, he envisions himself in a glass coffin, screaming as he watches Alma with her lover, Max (Richard Morant). Every word that he hears on the train prompts him to think about the past but the past, as Mahler remembers it, is full of anachronistic details and references to events that took place long after Mahler’s death. Mahler either remembers or imagines a trip to an insane asylum, where he meets a crazed man who claims to be the Emperor. When Mahler thinks about how he converted to Catholicism to further his career, he imagines himself jumping through rings of fire while Richard Wagner’s widow, Cosima Wagner (Antonia Wilson), dressed like a Nazi dominatrix, taunts him. The hut at the lake appears again, an apparent paradise where Mahler works on a composition about the death of his child. Alma, meanwhile, surrenders her own musical ambitions, burning her compositions in a nearby forest.
Hmmm …. so, what we have here is a biopic of a renowned composer of classic music, one that is extremely stylized and features a good deal of religious symbolism. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that this is a Ken Russell film. Especially early on in his career, the British director took an obvious joy in taking conventional genres and shaking them up with his own flamboyant style. In fact, by Russell standards, Mahler is almost a conventional film. For all of the shocking images to be found in Mahler, the film is still easier to follow than either Tommy or Lisztomania. (There’s no scene in Mahler that’s quite as in-your-face as the scene in Lisztomania involving the giant phallus.) If anything, one looks at Mahler in that glass coffin and Cosima Wagner with that swastika on her backside and thinks, “Well, Ken Russell was a bit subdued this time out.” (Indeed, even the scenes of Mahler tied to a cross aren’t that shocking if you’ve seen other Russell crucifixion scenes.)
That said, Ken Russell’s relatively subdued approach works well with Mahler. By keeping one half of the film conventional and one half of the film flamboyant, Russell comments on how we always tends to remember the events of our past as being more extreme than they actually were. We internalize our fears and our prejudices and we make them into reality in our memories. Mahler’s memories may be over-the-top but then again, the same can be said for everyone’s memories. When Mahler imagines his family as being almost cartoonish stereotypes, Russell is showing how Mahler has internalized the anti-Semitism of German society. When he pictures Cosima goose-stepping as he converts to Catholicism, Russell shows that Mahler was aware that he rejecting his heritage for his career. (Some might find some of the images to be sacrilegious but Russell himself was a practicing Catholic. Only the truly faithful could be as sincerely critical of the Church as Russell often was in his movies.) Meanwhile, that the far more conventional scenes on the train work is largely due to the perfect casting of Robert Powell and Georgina Hale. They’re believably in love but, even more importantly, they’re both believably brilliant. You look at both Powell as Mahler and Hale as Alma and you instantly accept that they could both compose beautiful music. The film portrays Mahler as being an early 20th century rock star and Powell plays the role with a mix of charisma and frailty. As played by Powell, Mahler is someone who knows that he destined to be remembered as a great composer but who also struggles with the price that he’s paid to achieve his dream.
Ken Russell was a truly unique talent and, while Mahler may be a bit more conventional than some of his later films, it’s still a good example of what made him such an important (if underrated) filmmaker.