Tell Me About Your Childhood, Mr. Mahler

The Composer’s Visit With Freud Opens the New York Jewish Film Festival

A Cigar Is Never Just a Cigar: Freud (Karl Markovics, right) and Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) taking it easy on the couch.
A Cigar Is Never Just a Cigar: Freud (Karl Markovics, right) and Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) taking it easy on the couch.

By Jordana Horn

Published January 10, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
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The Forward speaks with Percy Adlon, director of “Mahler on the Couch:”

“Mahler on the Couch,” a lush fictionalization of a 1910 meeting between composer Gustav Mahler and psychologist Sigmund Freud, opens the New York Jewish Film Festival on January 12. The film, from German father-and-son filmmakers Percy and Felix Adlon, is mostly fiction: Only one historical account notes the meeting between the two boldfaced names, and such a meeting’s substance can never be known. But the movie’s exploration of Mahler’s torment over his wife Alma’s adultery reveals resonant emotional truth.

For a movie about the death of a romance, “Mahler on the Couch” is an eminently romantic film — contemplatively focused on the sublime bliss that humans can achieve through love. Mahler catches Freud in Leiden, Netherlands, as the good doctor is en route to his summer holidays in Sicily, and their initial consultation takes place as they wander through gorgeous empty squares, along canals and through alleys, as blind and crooked as the subconscious. Despite having traveled all the way from Austria for the meeting with Freud, Mahler clearly wants to avoid discussing the affair that Alma had engaged in with famed Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. He also wants to hide from his own guilt over having subverted Alma’s deep musical talents in the name of his own ego. Apparently, he has already canceled several appointments with Freud to analyze the affair and his debilitating reaction to it. “Neurosis or not, it’s an insult,” Freud says, reprimanding Mahler. One can only conjecture as to whether Mahler was billed for the missed appointments.

When Mahler first met Alma, a beauty almost 20 years his junior, she was the self-confident star of every gathering in which she found herself. Alma knew she was the belle of the proverbial Viennese ball, courted by everyone from her music teacher to famed artist Gustav Klimt. She wasn’t just a fin-de-siecle Paris Hilton, but also a talented musician and composer in her own right.

In all fairness, it would be hard for anyone not to fall in love with Barbara Romaner, the incandescent talent who plays Alma Schindler Mahler. When she enters the scene, whether in a passionate embrace with a lover, playing piano or just walking through a field, she captures the viewer’s attention as surely and swiftly as a trap. The camera shares its affection for Romaner with the audience, lingering over her facial features as the adoring fingers of a lover might reverently caress each of her myriad expressions. And Romaner’s features erupt in exquisite expressions of joy, rage, sadness or ecstasy with a beauty that rivals Mahler’s most grandiose works.

Mahler, played by Johannes Silberschneider, is harder to understand. His fiery talent prefers the lifestyle of a hermit, directing his passion, and entire life force, toward his music. In falling in love with the much younger, much more vibrant Alma, he tells Freud: “Autumn has fallen in love with spring. It’s gruesome.”

Like many people who fall in love, Alma hopes that her relationship with Mahler will be one of equals: They will be composing colleagues, complementing rather than completing or competing with each other. And like many in love, Alma is bitterly disappointed when Mahler, after proposing marriage, tells her that he doesn’t want a colleague, he wants a wife: someone to give him — the sole family genius — unconditional support. And Alma, already in love with Mahler, agrees to sacrifice her own aspirations and music in the name of her husband’s musical majesty. It’s inevitable, Freud argues, that she would seek validation in the arms of another man. In fact, he goes on to assert, if she hadn’t actually had one, she’d have had to make up an affair in order to remind her husband of her true worth.

It is telling that in most day-to-day scenes, the Mahlers do not directly interact with each other. They think about each other, certainly, whether with guilt (as Alma reclines her half-naked, sweat-drenched body across that of her lover) or concern (Mahler takes bites of several separate apples as he paces anxiously, hearing his wife scream in childbirth), but only in relation to themselves. But such analyses are left to the viewer, not to Freud. On the one hand, this tactic of refraining from forced exposition reduces Freud to the role of foil rather than psychological explicator (though having Freud tell Mahler, “Pleasant dreams” at the end of one scene elicits a well-earned snicker). On the other hand, the filmmakers have forced the viewer to examine what love and loyalty truly are — and to come face to face with the possibility that if one is not true to one’s own self, one is incapable of being true to someone else.

For the opening entry of the New York Jewish Film Festival, this is less a movie that has anything to do with Judaism than one in which the big-ticket names happen to have been, at some point, Jewish. Freud was famously Jewish and the founder of the “Jewish cure”; Mahler converted to Catholicism from Judaism in order to get his job at the Vienna Opera; Alma was raised Catholic and, if anything, was somewhat anti-Semitic. Judaism likely played little to no role in their life together.

And yet, the film is worthy of any festival, marked by its one stand-out performance and its delightfully down-to-earth examination of geniuses as nothing more, and nothing less, than humans — pockmarked by flaws and yet, despite them, achieving beauty.

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.

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