Friday, May 18, 2012

The Adlons' MAHLER ON THE COUCH opens -- cute comeback for Bagdad Cafe director

First seen as the 2011 NYJFF's opening night (opening afternoon, too) selection, MAHLER ON THE COUCH, from the father/son film-making team of Percy and Felix O. Adlon, is admirable for a number of reasons. Primarily it will -- due to its cinematic smarts, humor and energy -- help rid us film buffs of memories of that ridiculous, 2001 attempt, Bride of the Wind, to provide a movie about Alma and Gustav Mahler. Interestingly enough, what the two films have most in common is one important actor -- Johannes Silberschneider -- who, in Bride, played the role of Alma's earlier love, her piano tea-cher Alexander von Zemlinsky, whom Alma gave up to be with Gustav. In Couch, Herr Silberschneider (shown below, right) gradu-ates to the great man himself. And a damn good Mahler he makes.

The Adlons (shown at right, with Felix on the left) begin their movie with a charmingly imagined meeting between Mahler and Sigmund Freud (according to Freud's journals, a meeting actually took place), in which the composer, who has already cancelled two earlier meetings, now tries -- after Freud asks him his first personal question -- to wiggle out of this one, too. The daddy of all shrinks, however (played quite well by Karl Markovics, below, right) won't let him off so easily. The proverbial -- and titular -- couch is not used initially. Instead the two men walk around the grounds and then into town, as Mahler relaxes into reminiscing. Whereupon flashbacks appear, and keep appearing throughout, coupled to direct addresses to the camera by a number of subsidiary characters from Alma's mom and dad to Gustav's sister and others, as they fill us in on everything from history to gossip.

All this handled with a surprisingly light touch and enough humor and wit, particularly in the scenes between Mahler and Freud, to keep us amused and entertained, as we slowly enter the not-so-happy lives of this fabled pair. The filmmakers keep their cameras moving, ever alert for details of the active life, especially in the scene of Alma's and her mother's first visit backstage at the opera house. Later we watch a musicale, below, in attendance at which are the most prominent exes of both Gustav and Alma. Again, there is boundless energy and life on display.

As to the veracity of much of what we see, "Are you making this up?" Freud asks Mahler at one point in a flashback sequence, and so the Adlons very cleverly hedge their bets. For if the master questions the story, we don't have to. As the flashbacks grow longer, the time spent with Freud grows less. Initially, we miss this; finally, as we're pulled ever farther into the lives of Alma and Gustav, we don't.

As good as is Silberschneider as Mahler, newcomer Barbara Romaner (at left) is ever better as Alma. Romaner brings all the complications of a real woman to the role: She's needy, smart, sexual, selfish, ambitious, loving and wild. We see her initially as the lover of Walter Gropius (played by Friedrich Mücke, below). This is the affair that appears to bring on Mahler's need for therapy, but it is Mahler's letter to Alma, early on in the relationship, that acts as the catalyst for her change and growth. In it, he tells her that it is his work that counts; hers is paltry. He needs a wife. The movie is feminist simply by virtue of being true to its time.

We've also seen, in so many earlier films, the artist in the doldrums of composition, the pangs of composition, as the composer is surrounded by reams of blank or wrong-headed pages. But here, given to us in the midst of all else -- sexual passion, therapy, death, music and more -- it works anew. Perhaps the most moving scene is Alma's simple declaration of herself as being in, a part of, Mahler's music. By the finale, you'll realize that, above all, the film is a kind of love story. And a good one. It's a good bio-pic, too.

Mahler on the Couch, opens today in New York City at the FSLC, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.  Click here for showtimes. I hope the movie will make its way around the country to a few other major cities. If not, perhaps a DVD or streaming option is in the works....

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