Friday, 17 February 2012


Another Friday, another Ken Russell film about a classical composer. 'Mahler' is a surprisingly free form piece of work consisting of a number of fantastic (a descriptive, not qualitive term) diversions that, very loosely, tell the story of his life.

Piss taking pumpkin.
Mahler is played by future Jesus, Robert Powell. Powell's characterisation is quite simple: Mahler is a prick. Egotistical, vain, rude, shrill, neurasthenic, ambitious, cold, selfish, sickly. But he is also a great artist, a man who puts his talent before his own well being and expects those around him to do the same. His long-suffering wife, Alma (played by the marvellous Georgina Hale with her unique clipped, drawling delivery), writes lieder, but is forced to give this up - Mahler isn't interested in her talent, as he knows his is greater, so she is left to look after the kids, transcribe his music and run around the countryside taking bells from cows necks because the tinkling distracts him.

Mrs. Mahler, the Shadow.

Russell uses a long and rather fraught train journey through Austria as a starting point for biographical episodes ranging from Mahler's boyhood with his stereotypically 'oi vey' Jewish family (these scenes are played mainly for laughs, like a sitcom based on 'Fiddler On The Roof');a fantasy sequence where his sexual jealousy over Alma (she has a young lover who is in the army)manifests itself in a nightmare where a screaming Mahler watches his scantily clad wife dance upon his glass top coffin before he is prematurely cremated by a bunch of proto-Nazis. Much is this is 'pure cinema': no dialogue, just long, sharply edited and carefully composed scenes soundtracked by Mahler's stirring music. The tone throughout is just this side of hysterical, and Ken is obviously having fun (he said that this was a 'very personal' film).

Young Gustav learns about nature, with the Lake District standing in for Austria.

Overblown Ken Russell Fantasy Sequence # 247.

View from a glass topped coffin.

Yet, for all its visual appeal and vigour, 'Mahler' is not a good film. Self-indulgent and ridiculous, childish and grotesque, it simply has too much Ken, and not enough care. Russell doesn't really do actors, he doesn't do subtle and, left to his own devices, he's a terrible show off and a pain in the arse so, unfortunately for the viewer, the production starts listing badly after about an hour before slowly sinking under the sheer weight of its hyperactive vulgarity. 

Judaism is put to the sword.
For all the bluster, however, Russell manages to concludes the film with a well-played scene between Gustav and Alma that perhaps comes closest to conveying Mahler's true character and his total immersion in his art. After years of unhappy marriage, bitterness, jealousy, infidelity and the death of their daughter, Alma is deciding whether to leave Gustav and simply asks him why he doesn't love her. Mahler replies that he has always loved her, but he puts his love for her into his music, singling out a particularly beautiful passage as his artistic portrait of her - she immediately recognises that he is telling the truth and they are reconciled. Happy, joking, they go on their way together, neither knowing that Mahler has only a few days to live.

What could possibly go wrong?
'Mahler' isn't a disaster, but it is a failure. Russell is entering his 'superstar' phase, where he is able to do whatever he wants, to the detriment of his art (his next films would be the hugely successful 'Tommy' and the massively excessive 'Lisztomania'), and there are signs that his work is becoming decadent, flabby and self-obsessed. Firstly, he clumsily introduces a reference to Visconti's 'Death In Venice' (which famously used Mahler's music, but has no other concrete connection to him) and then holds the shot for ages, just to make absolutely certain that we have time to get the reference. It's neither funny nor clever - it's smartarsery for smartarsery's sake.

Secondly, Ken gives Oliver Reed a blink and you'll miss him cameo as a whistle blowing platform guard. Even in his half second of screen time, Reed over-acts, mugging and sticking his chin out. Again, it's pointless and smirking and, in microcosm, shows up one of Ken's key weaknesses as a director, his inability to curtail the worst excesses of his cast. 

Finally, there is the Cosima Wagner sequence. Mahler wanted to be the director of the Viennese Opera, but it was a job barred to Jews, so he converted to Catholicism and the Opera were able to appoint him. Cosima Wagner (Liszt's daughter, Richard's widow), who had the final say, was relieved not to have to turn down the best candidate for the job. This little incident, which is redolent of the institutionalised anti-semitism of the time but was not pivotal in Mahler's life (he said his only religion was composing), is turned into a smug, appallingly acted circus turn which provides an opportunity to (poorly) parody silent films and another excuse to stir up some cheap controversy by portraying Cosima as a Nazi. It's crass, cheap and sensationalist, says absolutely nothing about anything, and is weakly and unfunnily executed - in short, Ken at his very, very worst. Misery guts Mahler would not have been impressed at all.

1 comment:

  1. I love Mahler myself, viewing it as a pleasing half and half of his great early work with Monitor and his more extravagant excesses of the 70s onwards.
    That said I do take your critical points as valid.
    I even like the Cosima scene, it makes me laugh and like the funeral and the bit where Georgina runs round the country silencing everything for her husband's work it's pitched perfectly to Mahler's score.
    I blogged about Antonia Ellis and her turn as Cosima and in The Boy Friend last week :)