(Winner of the Technical Grand Prize at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival) Written and directed by Ken Russell, Mahler is a bio-pic about the life and works of the Austrian-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler. The film is an unconventional bio-pic that explores a man as he reflects on his life while being on a train with his wife as they deal with their crumbling marriage with Robert Powell and Georgina Hale respectively playing the roles of Gustav and Alma Mahler. Also starring Lee Montague, Gary Rich, Dana Gillespie, Miriam Karlin, Rosalie Crutchley, and Richard Morant. Mahler is a whimsical yet fascinating film from Ken Russell.
The film is an unconventional bio-pic about the life of Gustav Mahler as he’s on a train to Vienna upon his return to Europe from America as he’s joined by his wife as he reflects on his life as well as his marriage that is crumbling. It’s a film that explores a man and the events of his life as he looks back but also have these dreams and nightmares that play into his life and the music that created. Ken Russell’s screenplay has a back-and-forth narrative as it play into Mahler’s life and his marriage to Alma as it often showcase his neglect towards Alma and her talents but also the struggle to achieve greatness while also having strained relationships with his family. Even as Alma is having an affair with another man who is also on the train where Mahler is dealing with illness and issues as he loses interest in this homecoming where he would meet the people from his home.
Russell’s direction is lavish as it opens with a hut being burned with rock carvings of Mahler’s head and a woman freeing herself in a cocoon as it sets up the tone of what Russell would create in this mixture of a dramatic bio-pic with elements of surrealism. Shot on location in Austria and Britain, Russell maintains this air of style as the scenes at the train are largely straightforward where he plays into the claustrophobic tone of it through its close-ups and medium shots with some bits of Mahler looking out that includes this riff on Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice early in the film where Mahler looks at that film’s main character gazing upon a young boy with Mahler being disgusted. There are moments of humor and absurdity in the scenes in the train yet Russell chooses to keep it restrained and dramatic as it play into Mahler’s own frustration about his return as he looks back on his life.
Some of the film’s flashback sequences are a bit straightforward as it plays into Mahler’s own childhood yet much of it emphasize a lot on surrealism and extravagance such as Mahler’s own dream about his wife dancing on his tombstone while her lover Max (Richard Morant) looks on with glee as he’s wearing a Nazi uniform. Much of these sequences are shot in a wide or medium shot with these elaborate presentation including statues, lavish costumes, and set pieces that play into Mahler’s own Jewish background as well as a metaphorical dream about him rejecting his Jewish background and convert to Catholicism. Russell also bring in some elements of anachronisms as it relates to Nazi imagery as it all play into how Mahler’s music is used while there’s scenes at the hut on the lake that are intimate but also full of style as it plays into Mahler’s own isolation and growing neglect towards his family and his wife’s own talents where Russell also showcase a man just wracked with regret and uncertainty. Yet, its ending is about Mahler just making sense of his life and work upon his arrival to his home country. Overall, Russell crafts a wondrous and exhilarating film about the life and work of one of classical music’s great composers.
Cinematographer Dick Bush does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its naturalistic imagery for the scenes in and out of the train as well as some unique lighting for some of the fantasy scenes as it adds to the visual splendor of the film. Editor Michael Bradsell does excellent work with the editing as it is stylized with some montages, jump-cuts, and other stylish fast-cuts to play into the manic dreams that Mahler would have. Art director Ian Whittaker does incredible work with the look of the train compartments the Mahlers would stay in as well as the hut on the lake, their home in Austria, and some of the design of the statues and places that Mahler would dream about. Costume designer Shirley Russell does amazing work with the costumes from the early turn of the century clothes the Mahlers wearing on the train to the lavish clothes that Mahler sees others wear in his dreams including some stylish Nazi uniforms.
Hairdresser James Joyce and makeup artist Peter Robb-King do fantastic work with the look of the characters including the different looks of Alma in the flashbacks and in some of the dream sequences. The special effects work of John Richardson is terrific for some of the film’s dream sequences including the film’s opening scene. Sound recordist Iain Bruce does superb work with the way sound is used on location including the scenes on the train as well as in some of the dream sequences. The film’s music soundtrack features not just the music of Gustav Mahler but also Richard Wagner is used wonderfully as it help play into the many of the dramatic elements of the film as well as moments of suspense as the pieces also provide an interpretation into what Mahler is dealing with when he created a certain piece of music.
The film’s marvelous casting feature some notable small roles and appearances from Elaine Delmar as a princess riding the train, David Collings as the rival composer Hugo Wolf, Claire McClellan as the sculptor Glucki, Otto Diamant as Professor Sladsky who realizes how gifted the young Mahler is, Peter Eyre as Mahler’s troubled brother Otto who also aspires to be a composer, Dana Gillespie as the opera singer Anna von Mildenburg, Andrew Faulds as a doctor on a train, Miriam Karlin as Mahler’s aunt Rosa, Angela Down as Mahler’s sister Justine, Arnold Yarrow as Mahler’s grandfather, Gary Rich as the young Mahler, and an un-credited cameo appearance from Oliver Reed as station master on the train. Ronald Pickup is terrific as Nick as a musician who watches over the young Mahler as he realizes the boy’s gift for music while also helping him broaden his gifts. Lee Montague and Rosalie Crutchley are excellent as Mahler’s parents in their respective roles as Bernhard and Marie Mahler with the former being a man who brews beer for a living as he’s upset by his son’s academic shortcomings while the latter is more supportive towards the young Gustav.
Richard Morant is superb as Alma’s lover Max as a military officer who boards on the train to resume their affair while also appearing in Mahler’s dreams as this man trying to rid of Mahler and claim Alma to himself. Antonia Ellis is fantastic as Cosima Wagner as the wife of Richard Wagner who appears in one of Mahler’s dreams to get him to become a Catholic as she dances around in Nazi uniforms and helmets as it is this memorable appearance. Georgina Hale is amazing as Alma Mahler as Gustav’s wife who struggles with the role of being a housewife and mother to their children as she’s eager to express her own artistic interests while also having an affair with another man that is already having problems. Finally, there’s Robert Powell in a brilliant performance as Gustav Mahler as the famed Austrian composer who copes with his impending homecoming while having dreams, flashbacks, and nightmares about his life and work while dealing with a strained marriage, illness, and disappointments in his own life.
Mahler is a spectacular film from Ken Russell. Featuring a great cast, lavish art direction, its unconventional yet entrancing screenplay, and its offbeat approach to classical music. The film is an unusual yet extravagant film that doesn’t play by the rules on the bio-pic as it prefers to celebrate the life and work of one of the great visionaries in classical music. In the end, Mahler is a sensational film from Ken Russell.
Ken Russell Films: (Peep Show (1956 short film) – (Amelia and the Angel) - (John Betjeman: A Poet in London) – (Gordon Jacob) – (A House in Bayswater) – (Pop Goes the Easel) – (Elgar) – (Watch the Birdie) – (Bartok) – (French Dressing) – (The Dotty World of James Lloyd) – (The Debussy Films) – (Always on Sunday) – (Don’t Shoot the Composer) – (Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World) – (Billion Dollar Brain) – (Dante’s Inferno) – (Song of Summer) – (Women in Love) – (Dance of the Seven Veils) – (The Music Lovers) – (The Devils (1971 film)) – (The Boy Friend) – (Savage Messiah) – (Tommy) – Lisztomania – (William and Dorothy) – (Valentino) – (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) – (Altered States) – (The Planets (1983 film)) – (Vaughn Williams: A Symphonic Portrait) - (Crimes of Passion) – (Gothic (1986 film)) – (Aria-Nessun Dorma) – (Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music) – (Salome’s Last Dance) – (The Lair of the White Worm) – (The Rainbow (1989 film)) – (Women & Men: Stories of Seduction) – (The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner) – (Whore (1991 film)) – (Prisoner of Honor (1991 TV film)) – (The Mystery of Dr. Martinu) – (The Secret Life of Arnold Bax) – (The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch) – (Lady Chatterley (1993 TV film)) – (Alice in Russialand) – (Mindbender) – (Ken Russell’s Treasure Island) – (Dogboys (1998 TV film)) – (The Lion’s Mouth) – (Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle) – (The Fall of the Louse of Usher) – (Trapped Ashes) – (A Kitten for Hitler)
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