17 January, 2011

When Gustav Met Sigmund

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Films that feature well known figures from history are always intriguing, whether they reflect actual fact or are mere figments of the director's feverish imagination. In the delightfully dishy MAHLER ON THE COUCH, the filmmaking team of Percy Adlon (pere) and Felix Adlon (fils) have made a delicious historical "did-it-ever-happen" that features such historical characters as the classical composer Gustav Mahler, the psychotherapist Sigmund Freud and the Bauhaus design founder Walter Gropius (with Alma Mahler also figuring strongly in the steamy proceedings). This collision of historical fact and fiction was the official Opening Night attraction of the 20th annual New York Jewish Film Festival, whick kicked off last Wednesday and runs through January 27 in New York.

Set in 1910, the plot deals with the composer's tumultuous marital life with his wife Alma and his ambivalent relationship with Sigmund Freud in early 20th century Vienna. Based on actual events, eyewitness accounts and Mahler's journal entries, the film gives a wonderful flavor of the period and a behind-the-scenes look at the drives, neuroses and sexual longings of some of the century's most celebrated individuals. The film's rich score, which features many of the composer's most famous works, is conducted by Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. It had its world premiere at last June's Los Angeles International Film Festival.

Percy Adlon, best known for his 1980s arthouse hit BAGHDAD CAFE, once made a movie about Marcel Proust that focused on his maid. Here, he (in collaboration with his son) is up to his old tricks in a delightfully witty, artistically vigorous and occasionally loony fantasia about Vienna's cultural elite of 100 years ago. In the film, the great Austrian composer seeks out the father of psychoanalysis to help with the fallout of the marital betrayal of his wife Alma. She has fallen for Walter Gropius, the architect who eventually will be a founder of the Bauhaus School, which was instrumental in introducing modern architecture around the globe.

While other luminaries of the period including painters Gustav Klimt, Max Burckhard and Oskar Kokoschka figure in the narrative, the film focuses on the nine-year marriage of Gustav (Johannes Silberschneider) and Alma (Barbara Romaner), a union that seemingly was doomed from day one. Mahler, nearly 20 years her senior, stifles Alma's desire to write music while insisting she act as his muse and assistant. This headstrong woman never was going to play that role for long. In a panic over her alleged dalliances, Mahler tracks down Freud (Karl Markovics) in Holland, wandering strangely deserted streets and canals with the cigar-smoking Freud while ranting about the distressing adultery of his beloved wife. In flashbacks and documentary-like interviews on camera with Alma's mother (Eva Mattes), the film explores the source of Mahler's great joy and sorrow while suggesting that Alma is in every note of music he wrote during the marriage. This is especially true of the last piece he ever composed, the first movement of his unfinished Tenth Symphony, a composition filled with a outbursts of joy, rage and torment.

While the prominent men do shine, the film's most thoroughly enjoyable performance is given by Barbara Romaner, a Bavarian stage actress making her film debut in an electric performance. She plays her as a proto-feminist who understands that the new century will bring about a new dynamic in the traditional war of the sexes, one where the wife need not necessarily have more obligations or less fun than her husband. She fully inhabits the role of this complex personality whose passion for love and art collides with her role of wife and mother. Her love affair with Gropius is like a drug whose physical sensations she can't do without, yet her adoration of her husband's genius forces her (temporary) withdrawal.

The film is just one of the highlights of this year's event, which features a strong program of titles from Europe, North America and Israel. For a sense of the program's depth, refer to my piece of December 27:

For a full description of all the films and events of this year's 20th edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum, visit: or As my mother is found of couldn't hurt!!!!

1 comment:

Ken said...

Distortions regarding the film.
For example - Alma Mahler was the quintessential anti-feminist! Her goal in life was to be seen with, flirt, & have sex with the most important men in the arts world. And in that respect she was extraordinarily successful. She died in the 1960's and never had an interest in the feminist movement - sexual empowerment & the recognition by being with the greatest arts men was her objective. Yes, she was apparently beautiful and very cultured. She amazingly had sex with Kokoscha, Klimt, Zeliminsky, Werfel, Grofius and many others - a remarkable achievement! Regarding Gropius, she was "like a drug whose physical sensations she can't do without" is not true. They did have an on & off again sexual relationship & a child - but she left him... Gropius was an adulterer who had sex with other mens' wives throughout his life. Alma would never have looked at Mahler if he had not been the most important pillar of art in all Europe - the Director of the Vienna Symphony & Vienna Opera. She would not have married Werfel if he had not been the infamous re-known writer of his time.
What would have been most intriguing if the film had portrayed her anti-semitism that she possessed until her death - even after her marriage to two great Jews. Her mother & step-father - Nazis - chose to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner as the Allied troops entered Berlin. Her daughter hated her - she was despicable, self-centered, dishonest, a bigot and worse.

Alma did not sacrifice her music talent for Mahler. She demonstrated an amateur slight composing talent. After she complained to Mahler that it was unfair for him to "deny" her composing... Mahler pleaded with her to compose and gave her genuine support and encouragement. Incidentally, a woman more disgusting than Alma was her mother - but that's another story.