From its stunning opening sequence, featuring Georgina Hale (who plays the wife of Gustav Mahler in this Ken Russell film) isolated in full mummy wrap and writhing with erotic yearning to the lush strains of her husband's... more » music, Mahler distinguishes itself as the most poetic and archetypal of Russell's great-composer works. A kind of cinematic response to Luchino Visconti's 1971 adaptation of Death in Venice, in which Dirk Bogarde plays a Mahler-esque composer in search of beauty in the plague-filled city, Mahler stars Robert Powell as the great Jewish romantic from 19th-century Vienna, drafting enormous symphonic works in the midst of rising anti-Semitism. Converting to Christianity as a means of survival, Mahler carries on with his work but experiences an erosion of his health and sense of identity. Meanwhile, his self-effacing spouse represses her own creative drives to keep the resident genius afloat, plugging every leak and receding all but invisible into the woodwork. While the film is the least ostentatious of Russell's movies about music, it is hardly conventional, a mix of lyrical tableaux and comic fantasy that adds up to a stirring, dreamlike experience. --Tom Keogh« less
D. Roberts | Battle Creek, Michigan United States | 04/22/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This is a rather bizzare movie on the life of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Then again, perhaps it would be borderline impossible for anyone to conceive of a movie about Mahler which was not bizarre. The movie makes an attempt to reconstruct the psychology of an artistic genius, one who was so inspired by the works of Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe, Nietzsche & Novalis.The film takes place aboard a train; Mahler and his wife are both travelling on board. The trainride sees Mahler indulge in a number of flashbacks and nightmares, all of which provide the vehicle for Ken Russell to divulge the more salient episodes of Mahler's life. Among these are his childhood artistic inspirations, the rocky relationships he had with his wife & family and the unfortunate but infamous encounter he had with the emperor of Austria. As a biography of a composer, this one does not rank up there with "Amadeus," "Immortal Beloved" or Richard Burton's "Wagner." However, it does do a credible job of engaging some of the more memorable epochs of his life, as well as his incessant infatuation with death. There are also some intentional anachronisms, such as his "meeting" with Cosima Wagner. Far more important though, is the introspective look which the movie offers on the isolated existence of a tormented genius. The continual anguish of this friendly, misanthropic megalomaniac is felt throughout. Someone once asked Mahler, "How could a man as kind-hearted as you have written a symphony so full of suffering?" "It is," replied Mahler, "the sum of all the suffering I have been compelled to endure at the hands of life." Such is the theme of this movie. Such was the theme of Mahler's life. It is a theme sometimes gruesome, sometimes hauntingly beautiful, and always gripping. See this movie, and hear the theme for yourself."
The worst DVD transfer I ever saw...
Howard | USA | 02/13/2000
(1 out of 5 stars)
"Mahler was a great Ken Russell film. It should have been presented correctly on DVD. Instead what we get is a washed out, blurry, scratched up mess. The sound is bad and the beauty of the cinematography is totally lost. This would be laughable if it weren't a shame. Honestly, the VHS version of this film blows the DVD away (huh?). Mr. Russell was a pioneer in his time and respected by people who enjoyed his mischievous touch. This film needs to be redone by someone who cares!"
Thomas F. Bertonneau | Oswego, NY United States | 05/09/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Film auteur Ken Russell made at least six biographical movies about celebrated composers, three of which enjoyed commercial release in the United States: "The Music Lovers," about Tchaikovsky; "Mahler," about its titular subject; and "Lisztomania," really about Wagner as much as it was about Liszt. Unseen in commercial release in North America (and unseen by me) are studies of Frederick Delius, Sir Arnold Bax, and Bela Bartók. Known for his extravagance - and, let us be honest, his vulgarity - Russell nevertheless believes passionately in these projects and endows his composer-artists with an especially powerful aura. (At one point, in the late 1960s, Russell apparently tried to help in the promotion of Lyrita's release of symphonies by Bax, although his plan was eventually scuttled by Lyrita's management.) The Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Mahler films are all studies in the link between neurosis and creativity and portray the artist not merely as a social outcast, unfit really for society, but as a martyr to his own talent, which inevitably consumes him. "Mahler" (1974), as fantastic as portions of it might be, maintains the closest marriage with reality. Robert Powell (famously Jesus in Zeffirelli's film of that name) as Mahler represents perfect casting. For one thing, he looks the part. British beauty Georgina Hale (where is she twenty-five years later?) is alternately innocent and whorish as Alma Schindler, who, twenty years younger, became Mahler's wife only to betray him, as Mahler perhaps betrayed her, too. There is enough neurosis in their story to go around. Russell gives us not so much a straight narrative as a series of vignettes in flashback from Mahler's point of view as he returns by train to Vienna for the last time in 1911, the year of his death. Using Bernard Haitink's recordings of the Mahler symphonies (with the Concertgebouw Orchestra), Russell illustrates the music in the visual fantasies or episodes that make up the film. Examples? To the apocalyptic "organ chord" from the First Movement of the Tenth Symphony, we see Mahler's lakeside hut at Maiernegg burst into flames; then a cocooned female figure gradually emerges from her chrysalis in a weird ballet. To the death-march on "Frère Jacques" from the First Symphony, with its interruptions by an oompah-ing klezmer band, we see Mahler watching his own funeral and interment helplessly, his coffin carried by black-uniformed SS men while Alma, in matching SS miniskirt and jackboots, does a lewd dance on the grave. In a crucifixion scene accompanied by bleeding chunks from Wagner's "Ring," Cosima Wagner, the Mistress of Bayreuth,gives him a pass for being circumcised, then compels him to eat pork, thus licensing him to conduct the most Teutonic of Teutonic music. (This follows the announcement of the composer's conversion to Catholicism - as I said, nothing is too vulgar for Russell.) For the "Veni, Creator Spiritus" from the Eighth Symphony, Russell gives us a cinematic suite of Gustave Doré engravings based on Dante's "Paradiso." And so it goes. At one point, a reporter claiming to be "Ernst Krenek" bursts into Mahler's Pullman compartment. (The real Ernst Krenek would have been about three years old at the time.) What holds the sequence together is the music in combination with Powell's remarkable performance. He even convinces when he undertakes the thankless job of conducting an unseen (and of course nonexistent) orchestra for the camera. (We all do it, but none of us wants to be photographed while doing it.) While room remains for as less surreal treatment of Mahler, Russell's, despite its eccentricity, is still a worthy attempt. Aficionados of Mahler will especially want to have it. I recommend it with the cautions implicit in what has gone before."
Jason | 07/07/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Anyone knowing about Ken Russell's films knows to expect something a little eccentric. With "Mahler," he does not disappoint. For the lover of unusual films, as well as Mahler's grand orchestral canvases, this film provides many delights.A convalescing Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) ponders his life while on a train trip with his wife Alma (Georgina Hale), who is having an affair with a military officer. While it covers certain events from his life, including the misery and tragedy of his childhood, the film's real strengths derive from its more fantastical aspects. Russell examines the composer's psyche in some bizarre, anachronistic, and sometimes darkly humorous vignettes, some of which have to do with Mahler's Jewishness in anti-Semitic "fin de siecle" Austria. Some highlights: Mahler debasing himself to prove his worthiness to a B&D clad Cosima Wagner during the musical number "Jewboy," sung to a very familiar tune by her husband; seeing his own funeral with Nazi pallbearers, a nude Alma frolicking to the playfully nightmarish Scherzo from his own Seventh Symphony; and his own frolics with what appears to have been his true love, Death.Despite being the protagonist, Mahler is not completely a hero. Russell also examines Mahler's autocratic attitude towards his wife's composing, culminating in her burying her own compositions. The music selected for this scene is not by Mahler, but rather a Wagner piece with a very appropriate title. Perhaps this explains Mahler's phantasmic vision of Alma frolicking at his own funeral; does Russell have Mahler realize the delusion of consigning Alma exclusively to the role of muse, rather than leaving her to define herself as another creator?Having seen Russell's film, the prospect of a straight biopic about "events" in Mahler's life seems to me rather anticlimactic. Anyone wishing to see a straight biopic of Mahler should probably avoid this film. (You may wish to wait for a movie currently in the works about Alma Mahler.) However, those with an appreciation for unusual films and/or Mahler's music should give this film serious consideration."
With Mahler's Music, Russell Hits All the Right Notes...
Howard | 09/14/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"All right, I'll admit I'm a big Ken Russell fan from way back, although many of his films are flawed. Yes, he can be excessive (q.v. "Tommy") or overly obscure (q.v. "Women in Love"). But, when he gets it right, he gets it, and "Mahler" is one of his films where reality and his flights of fantasy balance each other perfectly. Centering around what is probably Mahler's last journey home, the composer and his much younger wife have been having a bumpy time of it. While she ponders dumping him for a young Austrian soldier, Mahler's medical condition sends him on a series of flashbacks and fantasies through his own life.A highlight of the film (often edited out in American editions for some reason) is Mahler's "conversion" sequence, when he trades Judaism for Catholicism as a career move -- and the whole thing is imagined with Mahler as a David-esque warrior, approaching the lair of Cosima Wagner, who's resplendent in Wagnerian/Nazi drag. Yes, it may seem anachronistic -- unless you know your European History. (Russell's next film, "Lisztomania," also played with the whole Nietszche/Wagner/Supermen will become Nazis idea, but far less successfully.)Anyway... "Mahler" is a funny and moving film that weaves time, memory and emotion to explore how an artist got where he is, and does it with beautiful imagery, imagination and, most of all, the incredible music of Mahler himself. It's definitely worth a look and a listen."