‘Mahler on the Couch’

Psyche of a musical genius laid bare


How lucky that Gustav Mahler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart never moved in the same social circle (though they both took Vienna by storm, Mozart preceded Mahler by about a century) — it’s likely they would have engaged in a battle of spitballs. By all accounts, Mahler was a sour fuddy-duddy (his nickname was “the banker”); enormously talented yes, but a fuddy-duddy all the same. The manic-depressive epicurean Mozart would probably have guffawed right in his face.

But “Mahler on the Couch” shows Herr Gustav in a whole new light and, um, position, if you’ll excuse the pun. The man seems much more intriguing with his suited body supine and his head on a cushion. Mahler has been immortalized on celluloid half a dozen times, but it takes “Mahler on the Couch” to show his darkly sexual, insidiously jealous, altogether more interesting side.

Directed by Percy Adlon (of “Bagdad Cafe” fame) and his son, Felix, “Mahler” is an irreverent dissection of one of the most important composers of the 20th century. In an interview with The Japan Times in early February, Percy Adlon said: “The story of Mahler makes a very strong narrative. Here was this man, extremely talented and full of sexual energy, compelled to pour the best part of himself into his music. As a result, Mahler the man was left depleted. On the other hand, his much younger wife seemed to have the best of both worlds — she excelled at being both a sensual woman and a wonderful artist. I wanted to show Mahler’s dilemma, his inner rage and confusion.”

To this end, the Adlons bring in Sigmund Freud (played by an excellent Karl Markovics), Mahler’s contemporary and a Viennese celebrity in his own right. Sigmund is gently bemused and patient, while Gustav (the exceptional and appropriately moody Johannes Silberschneider) lays bare his marital anxieties and sexual insecurities with unflagging intensity, each and every session.

The centerpiece of the film, however, isn’t Gustav but Alma, his wife (Barbara Romaner). A luscious Vienna hottie with an insatiable appetite for all the good things in life (namely, adoring men), Alma cares for and defers to her hubby, 19 years her senior, without being physically satisfied by him. This is a sore point with Gustav, who is often consumed by work and all the trappings that go with being a hip, of-the-moment Austrian composer. At the end of the day, he wants to return to a warm home, the smell of cooking, freshly scrubbed children and a smiling wife. “Is that a crime?” he splutters to Sigmund, while the psychiatrist wisely refrains from commenting.

Alma, for her part, has other plans. She has loads of musical talent and a fervently romantic nature; by the time Gustav meets and falls in love with her, young Alma has already been through affairs with men of considerable standing, first with her piano teacher and then with artist Gustav Klimt. Unlike Gustav Mahler, who suffers from a lack of personality, she has no trouble translating her fiery self into her work, and urges her husband to do the same. To this, the composer barks that he wants a “wife, not a collaborator!”

The Adlons lay this chauvinism on thick, and 10 minutes into the story it’s easy to see why Alma would seek respite and diversion in a relationship with someday Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (Friedrich Mucke). Alma may be a slut, but she is a tasteful and discriminating one. Another very sore point with Gustav.

Percy Adlon says he was fascinated by Alma: “She behaved like a feminist icon in an age when feminism was a mere whisper in the air.” At one point, Sigmund and Gustav discuss their mothers and shake their heads over how many children they’d had to bear (Freud had nine siblings, Mahler 13). Sigmund says wistfully that he only knew his mother as perpetually tired and always pregnant, her personal desires remaining unvoiced until death.

Alma is the polar opposite, full of needs that simply cannot be thwarted. Her megawatt energy fuels and charges Gustav’s symphonies; something that a conventional wife could never give. Whether he is willing to admit it or not, Alma is his irreplaceable collaborator — and when he loses her, it’s as though his scores cry out in agony.