One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 68
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
I recently streamed Ken Russell’s 1974 Mahler on The Criterion Channel, filling in a conspicuously missing title in my decades-long consumption of the British director’s filmography. As entertaining and informative as it is ornate and excessive, Russell’s chronicle of the life of the esteemed composer Gustav Mahler is well-suited to the filmmaker and his flamboyant style.
Russell made his bones crafting arts and music documentaries for the BBC before moving into theatrical features in the late 1960s. And with the arrival of three films in 1971—the musical The Boyfriend, the Tchaikovsky bio-pic The Music Lovers and Savage Messiah, a chronicle about French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska—Russell began to pump up the stylistic overindulgence that became his trademark.
This was also very true of Mahler, which was filled with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and pastoral inserts, while also providing an enjoyable biographical dip into the music man’s life.
Born in 1860 in Bohemia (then part of the Austrian Empire) into a German-speaking Ashkenazic Jewish family of modest means, Mahler’s talent in music as a boy was strongly encouraged by his parents. After attending the Vienna Conservatory and Vienna University as a teenager, he began his career as a conductor, and during his own lifetime, grew to be regarded as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day.
Mahler’s body of work is relatively limited—composing was essentially a part-time activity for him that always played second to his earning a living wage as a conductor. Nonetheless, the Austro-Bohemian’s music, which was never highly regarded during his own lifetime (he died in 1911), gained widespread popularity with a new generation of listeners in the second half of the 20th century.
It was generally designed for large orchestras and symphonic choruses, giving it a sweeping appeal that’s often been described as “cinematic” by the critics and classic audiences. That has made Mahler one of the most frequently performed and recorded composers of the past 50 years.
Over the years, I’ve grown into a casual fan. So what was even more intriguing than Russell’s film (which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in ’74) was the trigger effect that Mahler’s music had on me. There are nearly two dozen Mahler musical cues in the film (not surprisingly), sumptuously performed by The Netherlands’ Royal Concertgebouw, and I was most gratified to find myself recognizing a number of passages throughout. Not because I’m a knowledgeable classical enthusiast (I’m not) or because I have attended numerous Mahler programs at the Philharmonic (I haven’t), but rather I identified them from a number of films I’ve seen—and heard!—over the years. Yeah, he’s cinematic, alright!
The first time I heard Mahler in the movies was more than 40 years ago in the tense 1974 drama The Gambler, one of my father’s favorites and soon to be mine after we watched its network TV premiere back in the late 1970s. I’ve seen The Gambler many times since and have for years admired the effectiveness of Mahler’s music on the soundtrack. It’s one of what are undoubtedly dozens if not hundreds of films and television shows that contain orchestral renditions of the composer’s glorious work. Here are a half-dozen of my favorites:
Death in Venice (1971)
Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 5
I first saw Luchino Visconti’s disturbing take on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella in a downtown revival house in 1988, the year I moved to Manhattan. The Italian master weaves in sections from both Mahler symphonies throughout the entire film. They’re at their most effective twice; First, at the beginning, when Dirk Bogarde’s dying composer protagonist’s steamship first arrives in the city, which is slowly coming under the grip of a cholera epidemic. And then at the climax, when he succumbs to his own weakened heart—and repressed passions—in a lounge chair on a lonely hotel beach, black hair dye streaking down his cheeks.
The Gambler (1974)
Symphony No. 1 in D major
Hollywood composer Jerry Fielding based almost his entire score for Karel Reisz’s film on the grand Symphony No. 1, which moves between brooding, dark passages to beautiful, soaring melodies. It elegantly underscores the highs and lows of nice Jewish boy Axel Freed (James Caan), an NYC college professor whose compulsive gambling and Dostoevsky-esque yearning for risk-taking puts him into some serious hot water with a gangland shylock. It also prompts a juiced-up Axel to hop on a plane to a Caesar’s Palace blackjack table in Vegas, where he hits on an 18 and manages to pull a 3.
Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi action thriller is set in 2027, when humankind is infertile and society has been left on the brink of collapse. In other words, a perfect environment in which to get philosophical about love and violence, the latter growing quite startling in the second half. The sound of automatic weapons and explosion reverberating through a large refugee camp outside of London is marvelously offset by Mahler’s majestically somber Kindertodtenlieder. German for “Songs of the Death of Children,” this 1904 song cycle for voice and orchestra was inspired by the original Kindertodtenlieder, a group of 428 poems written by the 19th century German poet Friedrich Rückert following the illness and death of two of his children from scarlet fever.
Shutter Island (2010)
Piano Quartet in A minor
Or, to be exact, a “Quartet Movement for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello in A minor.” Mahler’s sole surviving piece of instrumental chamber music, which he composed at the Vienna Conservatory when he was approximately 15 years old, was considered lost for years, only to be rediscovered in the early 1960s by Mahler’s widow.
It was also found by Martin Scorsese, who put it to stunning use in Gothic-flavored psychological thriller about a troubled U.S. marshal (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigating an offshore psychiatric facility. The piece is cued in a scene where the marshal flashes back to his days as a soldier in WWII where he was part of a violence-filled liberation of a Nazi death camp. It’s a particularly symbolic choice of music as Mahler’s music was banned by the Nazi regime because he was Jewish.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Symphony No. 1
The great Terrence Malick has primarily featured classical music on the soundtracks of all ten of his feature films. The Tree of Life jumps to No. 1 with a bullet with selections and snippets from more than 30 pieces, including works by Brahms, Bach, Mussorgski, Holst and Mozart. The opening passages of Mahler’s first symphony forebodingly accent a pair of seminal scenes in the film, both involving death and how it affects the featured characters, a family in mid-1950s Texas. Mahler’s music adds both a spiritual wonderment and a feeling of acceptance to the loftily filmed proceedings.
At the midway point of this Oscar winner directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a fading film actor attempting to resuscitate his career as a Broadway director, is approached by an emotional performer in his play, and things begin to unravel in his head. As rising tensions and fears slowly get the best of Riggan, the evocative Rückert-Lieder, a collection of five Lieder (German for “song”) gently underscore the build to a possible implosion. Rückert was clearly a go-to inspiration for Mahler. And though I’m unfamiliar with the poet’s oeuvre, I can say that the music it inspired here is gorgeous.
It’s all gorgeous—and nearly an inspiration for me to search out those dozens of other films and TV shows featuring music by the man.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.