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Mahler on the Couch is a Class Act

The latest offering from highly respected German independent filmmaker Percy Adlon, a glossy, heady, off-beat biopic about the famous turn of the century Viennese composer Gustav Mahler, his tumultuous affair and stormy marriage with Alma Schindler, a woman twenty years younger, and his presumed (but undoubtedly fictitious) couch sessions with Sigmund Freud to sort out his emotional problems, was definitely the class film of the Los Angeles Film Festival.
This was a world Premiere scoop leveraged by Newsweek film critic David Ansen (the new artistic director of the fest) and was attended by many of the cast and production team. The film was shown at the vast theater number one, flagship hall of the Regal Cinemas complex, and was followed by a classy cocktail reception at Trader Vics just down the street.

As for the movie: Actress Barbara Romaner was salaciously sumptuous in the slightly vampish role of Alma Schindler and Austrian actor Johannes Silberschneider was a very close look-alike of the Historical Gustav Mahler. The scenes with Freud, with a rather comic bookish version of the Big Daddy of Psychoanalysis, were the least convincing and actually play less of a role in the overall picture than Gustav's relationship with the younger Alma -- and her relationships with her various other lovers. Much of the film was shot in Vienna and at the famed Vienna Opera House, which together with Silberschneider's uncanny resemblance to Mahler lent a feel of authenticity to the whole. Brilliant cinematography set the giant Theater Number One screen aglow, and the lavish production values made the picture look like a huge Hollywood production although it was actually made on a relatively modest budget.

Early twentieth century Vienna was the cultural crossroads of Europe and many of Mahler's contemporaries became international cultural icons. Among prominent historical names and personalities featured in the film are the painter and Art Nouveau genius, Gustav Klimt (Played grotesquely a few seasons back by John Malkovich in a forgettable picture entitled "Klimt"), the architect Walter Gropius, and the famous conductor Bruno Walter. Munich stage actress Barbara Romaner makes a dazzling screen debut as the object of Mahler's obsession, Alma, and the head turner of the town's decadent elite. This is as much her film as Mahler's and she is an actress I would certainly like to see more of. The style of the film is to have many of these persons, including an actress playing the sister of Mahler, talk directly to the camera about Mahler and Alma, in sections set off from the main wide screen story as if this were a talking heads documentary, which it isn't by any means.

What MOTC is, is a highly stylized, imaginative, and decorative dissection of an improbable but actual love affair between a famous composer and a feisty woman half his age, herself talented, who finally throws the great man over because, two children down the line, she can't stand living as a footnote to his frenzied work ethic and towering ego any longer. The death of one child acts as the fulcrum for their separation, but we feel all along that Alma has Mahler by the you-know-whats, and needs more solid loving than he can dish out. The relationship with Freud is pictured as cold, formal, and confrontational, but when they are traveling together on a train toward the end they finally do a male bonding number when Mahler offers Freud his hand and says "You can call me Gustl" (the friendly nickname for Gustav) to which the eminent founder of the science of Head-shrinking replies, "Well, then -- just call me Siggy"!

This is definitely not a movie for the truckdrivers out there, but it should cut a nifty arc in proper intellectual and authentic foreign film buff circles, and may even cross over to a more general audience of the kind that likes hot love stories, pomp, and ... circumstances.

Alex deleon

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