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German Gems Review: Mahler On The Couch

By  · Published on January 14th, 2011

German Gems premiered last year in San Francisco as a one-day celebration of new films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It returns this year to the Castro Theatre but expands to a three-day mini-festival running Friday, January 14th to Sunday, January 16th. Advance tickets are available at brownpapertickets, and more information about the fest can be found here.

Biopics can be a tricky genre because regardless of the subject’s popularity or the inherently interesting aspects of their story the resulting film can still fall flat in its factual presentation. No one would argue for example that Nelson Mandela’s life is anything but a dramatic triumph of will power and humanity, but there’s a reason Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is used as a treatment for insomniacs. One way around the risk of simply relaying facts with your film is to inject it with a unique style that keeps viewers on their proverbial toes throughout. When it works the result can be a stunning achievement like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. And when it doesn’t? You get Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.

Somewhere in between those two extremes sits Mahler On the Couch.

“Autumn has fallen in love with spring. Gruesome.”

The film tells the story of famed composer Gustav Mahler and his faltering relationship with the far younger Alma Schindler. It seems she’s taken up with another man, one her own age, and Mahler is struggling to understand where their marriage went wrong. He makes an appointment with Sigmund Freud, and over the course of several hours the two men work through Mahler’s memories of the highs and lows that brought he and Alma to their current predicament. His prowess as a composer does not translate well to being a husband as his expectations and demands spell doom almost immediately. His memories play out in beautifully photographed flashbacks featuring characters who occasionally speak directly to the camera, but unfortunately the film is also more than a little inconsistent in its tone and ability to engage.

Mahler’s life has been explored in film before, most notably in Ken Russell’s 1974 movie, Mahler, but this latest biopic utilizes an interesting historical framework to tell the tale. His meetings with Freud provide a framework from which the story spills, and while the two men banter and play off each others professions the story told in flashback fluctuates in tone depending on the events. Much of the film seems lightweight and almost comical, but attempts to be dramatic sometimes falter as shifts in music imply one emotion while the screen betrays another. It’s that transitional lack that deflates most, if not all, of the story’s drama. That’s an unfortunate thing when you’re trying to impart the sadness that comes with a loveless marriage and the loss of a child.

If the tone falters in its consistency the same cannot be said for the film’s score. It consists entirely of Mahler’s compositions with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra performing parts of his 10th, 5th, and 4th symphonies throughout. The music soothes and soars in appropriate measure and succeeds in showing the man’s artistic brilliance in contrast to his personal failures. Even if you don’t recognize his name the modern film-goer has most likely heard his music in films as diverse as Children Of Men, Irreversible, and Bright Lights Big City.

Also of note is the film’s use of light to help create some soft and beautiful imagery. Directors Felix and Percy Adlon seem quite good at illuminating their scenes with natural light that helps to create a warmth that otherwise might not be noticeable. It enhances outdoor scenes set in the wide open countryside as well as more intimate moments with lovers indoors. The Adlon’s also employ the use of incidental characters talking directly to the camera as if being interviewed about the troubled couple. The screen crops to them as they speak then opens back up to the action unfolding around them. The technique is appealing both visually and narratively.

Mahler On the Couch presents a teasing glimpse into the lives of a tragically ill paired couple, but its lack of tangible drama prevents the viewer from ever truly caring about the unfolding events. Instead the film exists as a beautifully shot music video for Mahler’s music with brief comical interruptions. Fans of the man’s work will enjoy, but those looking for a serious exploration of Mahler’s troubled relationship will be better served by one of the numerous biographies available in bookstores.

Mahler On the Couch screens Friday, January 14th at 7pm.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.