Ah, Ken Russell, the self-but-rightly described "English Federico Fellini", how we miss him. Having nailed shut the coffin of his mainstream directorial career with his 1991 film Whore (trailer), but for a rare A-film acting job (good), he has been relegated to the realm of inconsequential television movies (bad) and experimental independent projects (good) that almost no one ever sees (bad). But for a long while, say from his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969), with its famed full frontal nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, to the aforementioned career-killer about the world’s oldest profession, the man created one wildly ingenious, mind-blowing filmic excess after the other, all of which, though often of variable quality and usually way too pretentious, always held some visual stunner or out-and-out mindblower. Even today, many of his films are still jaw-droppers—which makes it all the more un-understandable that he enjoys such little respect amongst fans of mondo cinema. But then, he work is also often a bit on the pretentious side, a tad too serious, to be truly enjoyable. Be sure, as superfluous or pointless as any given visual excessive (or non-excessive) scene might be, Russell himself surely knew exactly what it should symbolize or say.
Mahler is one of his many artist’s biographies films, a direction that he was forever partial to, eventually doing films on creative personalities ranging from Isadora Duncan (in the early TV project Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World ) to Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers ) to the mostly forgotten French painter Henri Gaudier (Savage Messiah ) to the silent film star Rudolf Valentino (Valentino ) to a variety of Romantics on the night Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein was born (Gothic [1986 / trailer]); of them all, the most outrageous, mind-blowing and fun, despite the in-part absolutely miserable performances, is his infamous Liszt biography Lisztomania (1975 / trailer), a film that—like those of Alejandro Jodorowsky—truly has to be seen to be believed.
Mahler, while hardly celibate when it comes to ocular assaults, is for the most part hardly as excessively baroque as Lisztomania (but for a scene or two), but a viewer willing to sit the film out will be rewarded with an excellently filmed, well acted and interesting if occasionally alienating "biography" interspersed with some wild interludes. Though Russell does reveal a few tidbits about the life of Mahler—the family situation, his later position as supporter of the family—the film is anything but a sequential narrative of his life and times. Instead, Russell goes for a more interpretive approach in which Mahler—played as an egotistical, sickly and whining twit by Robert Powell (of Asylum [1972 / trailer], Harlequin [1980 / trailer] and The Survivor [1981 / trailer]—reminisces or dreams about stages in his past as he and his wife Alma (Georgina Hale of The Devils [1971 / trailer] and The Watcher in the Woods [1980 / trailer]) return home by train after a canceled tour. The dialog is always portentous, but all the ponderous aspects of the film are always quickly balanced by a something playful, mind-boggling or simply intriguing. Among the highpoints: an interlude that spoofs A Death in Venice (1971 / trailer), probably only included because the main character of Thomas Mann’s book is loosely modeled after Mahler; a symbolic scene in which Alma literally buries her creativity, killed by Mahler; a visit to the Kaiser in which Mahler and "Mrs Mahler" waltz endlessly through the royal gardens before all expectations suddenly get flipped; an outrageous cremation scene inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece Vampyr (1932) in which Mahler, imprisoned in a coffin with a window, watches the song and dance celebration of his wife and Nazi pallbearers up until (and, symbolically, after) he is cremated; an outrageous and hilarious take-off of Wagner’s Siegried representing Mahler’s unwanted (but career-intelligent) decision to convert from Judaism in which he hops through flaming hoops and obeys the beck and call of Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis)—who, as someone mentions on imdb, "Never met a Nazi she didn't like"—decked out like a sex-starved Nazi Goth; another scene in which…
Hell, what’s the point to list them all? Mahler, like so many of Russell's films, is just one memorable and impressive scene after the other. In the end, it is neither the occasional factoid nor Russell’s portentous statements about creativity or the composer that really makes the film interesting, it's the vivid and memorable intemperance that keeps you glued to the screen. The occasional thing or two that you might also glean about Mahler's life, or maybe even about the man himself, that’s definitely secondary in this film—as it is in all Russell’s “biographical” films.
We miss you, Ken. You were really a filmmaker with balls.