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Ken Russell Mahler title

It is a wholly brilliant matching of music and image, giving back to Mahler's music as much as it builds on it. It's one of the most densely layered works Russell ever made" (Ken Hanke in Mountain Xpress, 21 Apr 2015 click here)

Ken Russell's Mahler from 1974.  With two flops he needed a commercial success, so returned to classical composers.  The film is about  sacrifice and creativity- Mahler has to sacrifice his religion and convert to Christianity, Alma his wife sacrifices her musical career.  A train journey provides a rite of passage, starting with a dream sequence which is Russell at his best and most visual- "music always told stories to Mahler" (Peter Franklin, The  Life of Mahler, 1997, chapter 3).

Ken Russell Mahler

The original programme notes by Mahler for the first symphony describe the opening movement "The introduction depicts the awakening of nature at the earliest dawn" (from Philip Barford, Mahler Symphonies and Songs, 1970).

Ken Russell Mahler

Waking Mahler says to Alma "You were part of a dream" / "A pebble I suppose" / "No, you were a living creature struggling to be born" / "At last you've noticed".  Early indication of Alma's state of mind.

Roberft Powell as Mahler

As the train journey continues Mahler remembers episodes from his life, and on the train itself he confronts jubilant crowds (success), the gutter press (sensationalism), his wife's lovers (infidelity), and the doctor (mortality).

Ken Russell Mahler    Ken Russell Mahler

Ken Russell Mahler Georgina Hale  Robert Powell in Ken Russell's Mahler

A beautiful film mixing true emotion, including the death of Mahler's children.

Ken Russell Mahler  Ken Russell Mahler

The memories of Mahler's childhood bring out the brutality of Mahler's father, with the adult tormented by his childhood trauma.  The episode is good but could be shortened, with the Jewish scenes a bit too fake kosher.

Ken Russell Mahler

Mahler has to convert from Judaism to Christianity to keep working.  The scene from his childhood learning to swim presages the later baptism of Christianity. "The Jewish question touched Mahler very closely.  He had often suffered from it, particularly when Cosima Wagner, whom he greatly esteemed, tried to bar his appointment in Vienna because he was a Jew" (Splendid Isolation 1906 from Gustav Mahler, Memories and Letters by Alma Mahler edited by Donald Mitchell, translated by Basil Creigton, 1946).

Ken Russell Mahler

Alma removes bells from the cows, silences birds and stops the local band to give Mahler silence to compose.  This is based on fact "the inn's other visitors, the organ-grinder and farmyard animals had to be silenced by Natalie [friend] and Justine [sister] as best they could while Mahler worked in his little studio on the lake shore" (from Peter Franklin, The Life of Mahler, 1997 chapter 5).

The film cost just over 150,000 pounds and was shot in seven weeks.  The American version was shortened by 30 minutes, mainly by removing the Cosima Wagner sequence.

"a film conductor Klaus Tennstedt said was "the best film ever made about music." I'm not about to argue with him. Mahler is from the richest period of Russell's career when he was at the height of power. It is a wholly brilliant matching of music and image, giving back to Mahler's music as much as it builds on it. It's one of the most densely layered works Russell ever made" (Ken Hanke in Mountain Xpress, 21 Apr 2015 click here).

All images from the film unless otherwise stated.


Ken Russell - Mahler - credit

Ken Russell Mahler   Ken Russell |Mahler

Robert Powell plays Mahler and Georgina Hale his overshadowed wife Alma.

Dana Gillespie the singer (she recorded Bowie's Andy Warhol before Bowie did) plays Mahler's mistress Anna von Mildenburg, and she wrote the composition Alma's Song used in the film though she is miming to Carol Mudie.  "Anna von Mildenburg took it upon herself to visit... frequently bringing a whole repertoire of operatic scenarios in which she and Mahler would upstage the young, and pregnant, wife" (Peter Franklin, The Life of Mahler, 1997 chapter 6).

Ken Russell Mahler

Alma who composd music literally buries her creativity- she puts the music in a pencil case and buries the case.  Her performance is possibly the best she has done.

Ken Russell Mahler Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed appears in a cameo role as the railway guard- in the book Hellraiser author Robert Sellers states Reed was given three bottles of Dom Perignon for the role.

Ken Russell Mahler Hugo Wolfe Wolf

In the credits the composer played by David Collings is given as Hugo Wolfe whereas his name is Hugo Wolf.

Photography is by Dick Bush and the editor is Michael Bradsell.

Best Image

Ken Russell Mahler   Ken Russell Mahler

The hut by the lake bursting into flames which starts the film.  Mahler's idyll has ended.

Mahler hut

One of Mahler's actual huts (which has been renovated)- "a small wood structure he had built for the summer of 1894".  It is on the shore of the Attersee in Austria (photo and description from Peter Franklin's The Life of Mahler, chapter 4, 1997).

I asked Ken about the hut burnt in the film, and it was specially built for him.

Apocalypse Now!

Apocalypse Now!

Coppola pays homage in the opening of Apocalypse Now! (images from the DVD of the film).

Best Scene

Ken Russell Mahler Alma Mahler 

Alma Mahler walking down the stairs in a black veil like the shadow of death.



Ken Russell Mahler

Ken Russell includes a homage to Death in Venice.  At times Powell also seems to be influenced by Dirk Bogarde with the similarities going beyond the direct homage.

The domestic sequences of Mahler as a child are similar to those in Savage Messiah.

There is a long train ride. Various nuns.

The scenery is around Russell's former home in the lakes.

Mahler makes fun of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto just as happens in The Music Lovers.  In fact Tchaikovsky saw Mahler conduct.  Mahler also met Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Debussy, all subjects of films by Russell as well as a novel about Brahms (meetings are mentioned in Peter Franklin's The Life of Mahler, 1997).


Other films released in the same year include The Godfather 2 (sublime), Pasolini's Arabian Nights, Polanski's Chinatown and Brian de Palma's cult Phantom of the Paradise.

The Godfather part 2    Pasolini Arabian Nights    Phantom of the Paradise

More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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