The gala première of Mahler on the Couch at the Los Angeles Film Festival took place at the Regal Premiere Cinema (June 26, 2010), a spectacular new theatre, where the experience is like being at a historic European theatre only with the latest in sound, and technology.
Before the film started, German director Percy Adlon took to the stage, saying how proud he was to be an Angelino since 1989 and now having this launch for his new film in his adopted city. His son, Felix joined him at the microphone, and explained how they work together, “Father goes into a deep state of concentration in a room.” To which Percy replied, “And then my son comes in with some brilliant idea. I think we are the only father-and-son writing-directing team.”
There were many friends, cast and crew in the audience; producers, artists and actors from Hollywood and abroad were also in attendance. Percy is best known for his popular 80s independent film Bagdad Café, which became a short-lived TV show.
This time the filmmakers have woven a story of obsessive love between Vienna’s own, Gustav Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) and his wife, the infamous Alma Maria Schindler, (Barbara Romaner) reputed to be the most famous groupie of her time with lovers including Gustav Klimt, Max Burckhard, Walter Gropius, and Alexander von Zemlinsky.
The Adlons’ story utilizes a mix of narrative and documentary styles. There is plenty to tell but the most important items seem to be revealed in passing. Their main intention is to explore the couple’s psycho-sexual dynamics. The film plays like a tone poem, dancing between intimacy and rage. The music ebbs and swells to underscore their tale of love. The soundtrack is provided under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen and performed by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, featuring the “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5, and the “Ruhevoll” from Symphony No. 4 along with the first movement of the never completed Symphony No. 10. The use of these excerpts creates an extraordinary experience. The filmmakers attempt to match the music with the narrative: blissful No. 4, created out of his great love and passion for Alma; and then the stormy No. 5, springing from a place of anger and rage that she might leave him. [Editor’s note: Always generous with the facts when bringing stories to the screen, it was Symphony No. 8 that was dedicated to Alma—the only symphony to have a dedication.]
The central plot device has Mahler being psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud (Karl Markovics) over the course of a short stay at an almost-deserted hotel. The two housekeepers are the only other people seen in this segment: no one is on the streets as they walk the city. It must be during a holiday period.
Once the psychoanalysis begins there are flashbacks showing how the couple met and fell in love. Was this a dream of Mahler’s, or was his young, talented student just fascinated by the older, already-famous composer who could have his pick of sopranos at the opera? Alma never lacked companionship and had her choice from the major artistic personalities of the time.
Alma seems far too young and free spirited for the staid twenty-years her senior, work-obsessed composer. Still, it is wonderful to see them working together and enjoying the creation of music during the high points of their marriage. The scene where they sit around the living room table as Mahler composes then gives her a section to work out is brilliant. (If only the whole film had the energy captured here.) How many people in any age could make that boast? What went wrong? Was it the passing of one of their beloved children from diphtheria? Taken as a whole, this account of their time together is largely tragic.
Still, telling the story of such luminaries without filling in the details makes viewers want more. Freud, who also lived in Vienna, is basically relegated to being more of a plot device rather than a real person.
Was it age alone that threw Alma into another man’s arms? She spent long periods apart from her husband in what today would be called rehab, but that’s portrayed mostly as an opportunity for her to have affairs.
Percy Adlon says his “goal was to give greater understanding to Alma’s character.” He feels that she was spent from having children, losing one and all the while obsessively nurturing Mahler and his talent. Still, as they married, Mahler told his young bride that he wanted a wife, not a colleague. As a wealthy woman of the time she wasn’t burdened with all that much responsibility—she only had two children and a staff. At the time she became engaged; she had to choose between Mahler, and her flattering, physically obsessive music teacher, Zemlinsky (Mathias Franz Stein). She quickly made the decision to marry Mahler and enjoy his fame; it is hard to feel sorry for her life of wealth, and privilege. Sure, it would have been nice if he’d offered her more credit, and taken time with her own compositions, but that wasn’t the deal, and, considering the era, he seemed quite loving and generous.
If you read Alma’s biography it would seem these nine years were but a small chapter: she was married many other times. There was more than enough drama in her life for another movie. Still, was it not Mahler’s magnificent music that immortalized the couple?
This German-language film is beautiful to see and hear; the cinematography stunning. The performances of the leads in the cast are superb, particularly Romaner—a theatre actor making her screen début. Not a perfect film, yet an exhilarating hymn to the sight and the senses. The contributions from the technical team are excellent with special mention given to the superb employment of orchestral sound to reinforce the personal drama as it unfolds. JWR