Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mahler on the Couch (September 21st and 23rd at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[MAHLER ON THE COUCH screens Friday September 21st at 7:30 pm and Sunday September 23rd at 4 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr. 

Remember Tom Lehrer? He was the Harvard math professor who had a brief, brilliant career as a piano-playing musical satirist, quite edgy for his time, pressing a few immortal albums before retiring from the gag biz. He gave a fine excuse, that when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, no joke Lehrer or anyone else could conceive could surpass what was going on in reality. Kind of like what I felt about the 2000 elections. Anyway, one of the tunes in the Tom Lehrer songbook was "Alma," a naughty little ditty about the wife of the great composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911); she seemed to have serial marriages/affairs with geniuses, one after the other, in different fields. If Alma lived in Hollywood she'd be celibate (rimshot).

Most prominently Alma ensnared (according to Lehrer; I won't even Wikipedia this) not just Mahler but also the architect Walter Gropius (you can thank his revered Bauhaus school in part for some of the really ugly office buildings around Cleveland), and the award-winning author Franz Werfel. I have the Lehrer lyrics memorized: "Alma, tell us/All modern women are jealous/You didn't even use Pons/Yet you got Gustav and Walter and Franz." Yet my four-digit PIN number remains a mystery to me. Why, why?

I wonder if esteemed German filmmmaker Percy Adlon and/or his son Felix had Tom Lehrer's tune in mind when they tag-teamed together to make MAHLER ON THE COUCH, a clever confabulation of a scrap of unusual facts from the golden age of pre-World War One Vienna - that a frazzled Gustav Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) evidently sought out the legendary Sigmund Freud (Karl Markovics) for an unscheduled consult on his marital woes with wayward Alma (Barbara Romaner) - prefiguring generations of showbiz megastars who seem to spend more time in therapy than rehearsal.

Those expecting Freud-bashing (which seems to be a la mode in psychiatric circles; they were all kooks if you asked me) may be disappointed, as Sigmund is a benignly comical figure - he admits to Mahler that he's had a certain phobia about music, particularly Mozart's "Don Giovanni" - who is more a narrative gateway to flashbacks about the power couples' relationship. The much-older Gustav is music teacher to 22-year-old Alma Schindler, considered the prettiest girl in Vienna and ardently pursued by many. Alma also aspires to write music, a goal she must abandon when she falls in love with established genius Mahler, who wants only one composer in the household.

The relationship is tainted by Alma's in-laws dislike for her - then family tragedy, then Alma's ill-concealed affair with Walter Gropius, a genius closer to her own age. The strain even threatens Mahler's health via a chronic heart ailment (part of the composer's lifelong obsession with mortality). Though initially we get a picture, mainly via Mahler's POV, of Alma as Tom Lehrer would have rendered her, a crass floozy-groupie-gold-digger of insatiable sexual appetites, some counseling by Freud gives a more balanced picture, with Alma's side of things.  

Luckily, little of this is rendered in heavy Teutonic tragedy. The Adlons' fast-paced style actually rather recalls a sort of a highbrow Woody Allen (and Woody Allen can be pretty highbrow to begin with), not unlike MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, with various drawn-from-life characters (Mahler's sister Justine, Viennese journalist Franz Hirn, the painter Klimt) speaking directly to the camera in "interview" format. And it's a strong plus that just about everyone looks era-correct. American cinema would have cast Ryan Reynolds as Mahler, Channing Tatum as Freud, and some Victoria's Secret shiksa as Alma (and Heidi Klum's at liberty, too). But actress Barbara Rominar manages to be vivaciously desirable and still look properly like she stepped out of a stiff, frau-ishly non-boudior B&W photo-portrait from fin-de-siecle Vienna.

The Adlons also use Mahler's music as a constant accompaniment, sometimes seemingly editing and writing dialogue to it - kind of like Carl Stalling's melodies in the Looney Toons. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But this is in general an "art" film that is really fun, not an easy thing to find, especially at the Cinematheque nowadays.

One Amazing Mahler Fun Fact the narrative ignores (and the Adlons have come out and said it would have been a distraction here) is the composer's famous spurning of his Jewish heritage, converting to Catholicism primarily for career purposes. For more on that, I urge viewers to look into the late Ken Russell's fever-dream biopic MAHLER, starring Robert Powell, which I don't think a lot of classical music scholars recommend but which I found an eyeful and earful. A home-video double-bill of MAHLER and MAHLER ON THE COUCH would be a great chance to experience multiple Mahlergasms. Okay, maybe I just wanted to invent the word "Mahlergasm." Alma slept with guys for less. (3 1/4 out of 4 stars)

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