Mahler (1974)

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“Mahler” is a 1974 biographical film based on the life of composer Gustav Mahler. It was written and directed by Ken Russell for Goodtimes Enterprises, and starred Robert Powell as Gustav Mahler and Georgina Hale as Alma Mahler.

The film was entered into the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Technical Grand Prize.

Both trifles and structure are tossed out the door by director Ken Russell in this film. Here, historical content matters not so much as metaphors, feelings, emotions, and interpretations, and pay close attention, as every word and frame is intended to be important. The film takes place on a single train ride, in which the sickly, aged composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, confront the reasons behind their faltered marriage and dying love. Each word seems to evoke memories of past, and so the audience witnesses events of Mahler’s life that explain somewhat his present state. Included are his turbulent and dysfunctional family life as a child, his discovery of solace in the “natural” world, his brother’s suicide, his [unwanted] conversion from Judiasm to Catholicism, his rocky marriage and the death of his young children. The movie weaves in and out of dreams,  flashbacks, thoughts and reality as Russell poetically describes the man behind the music.

The film contains a surreal fantasy sequence involving the anti-Semitic Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis), widow of  Richard Wagner, whose objections to his taking control of  the Court Opera were supposedly removed by his conversion to Catholicism.  In the process, the film explores Mahler’s music and its relationship to his life.

Some outdoor sections of the film were made in Borrowdale, in the English Lake District. The music score of the movie consists of recordings by the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink.


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