Mahler On the Couch is co-written and co-directed by that rarity, a father and son team, Percy (1987’s Bagdad Cafe) and Felix Adlon. Their German language movie reminds me of 1976’s The Seven-Percent- Solution based on Nicholas Meyer’s novel about Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) being treated by Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Unlike that invented encounter between the make believe British detective and the Viennese psychoanalyst, Mahler opens with a disclaimer, asserting that while Freud’s meeting(s) with the musician actually occurred, the movie’s treatment of Mahler’s treatment by Freud is fictionalized.
If Holmes’ cocaine abuse prompted Dr. Watson to send his friend to see Dr. Freud, Mahler’s (Johannes Silberschneider) troubled marriage to Alma Mahler (Barbara Romaner) compels the composer to seek the father of psychoanalysis (Karl Markovics) out while he’s on holiday in Amsterdam. Alma has been depicted as the uber-groupie of all time (move over Pam Des Barres!), who worked her charms on Europe’s top intellectuals in early 20th century Europe.
I first heard of this enigmatic femme fatale in the 1960s, thanks to that peerless parody songwriter Tom Lehrer, whose droll song Alma includes the lyrics:
“Alma, tell us!
All modern women are jealous.
Which of your magical wands
Got you Gustav and Walter and Franz?”
The Gustav, of course, refers to Mahler, who was about 19 years his wife’s senior. Ignored by her workaholic genius husband and sexually dissatisfied, Alma has a passionate affair briefly but fairly explicitly depicted onscreen with Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect. (The “Franz” refers to the novelist Franz Werfel, who is not portrayed in Mahler On the Couch — to show all of Mahler’s many amours would require a mini-series.)
To me, Mahler is more about Alma than the composer or the shrink. Far more than a groupie, Romaner’s insightfully drawn Alma is portrayed as a forerunner of the emancipated woman, liberated sexually, as well as intellectually and artistically. However, this free spirit had the misfortune of being born in pre-feminist times in 1879, and was pressured by patriarchal society to submerge and sublimate her own creative drive to that of her husbands’ and lovers’ (who included the painter Oskar Kokoschka). The budding composer stopped writing music when she married Mahler, and this movie suggests that this more than sexual frustration drove Alma into the arms of others. After all, as Lehrer astutely noted in his witty ditty: “The loveliest girl in Vienna Was Alma, the smartest as well,” combining talent, brains and beauty.
Mahler On the Couch also has humor, as well as high drama and Mahler music conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Markovics’s Freud has a sly wit, but none of the compassion that marked Arkin’s incarnation of the psychoanalytical pioneer who sought to save civilization from its discontents and illusions. Romaner, a stage actress, is stunning in her first major screen role, and one suspects that if Barbara pursues a film career she shall conquer a cinematic Roman empire.
The real Alma was a Jew who eventually fled the Nazis (who had no use for Jews or liberated women), crossing the Pyrenees Mountains on foot, escaping to L.A., where she established an artsy salon and Hollywood adapted Werfel’s Song of Bernadette in 1943 starring Jennifer Jones (who won the Best Actress Oscar). So it seems that women named Alma (which means “soul”) make the most extraordinary lovers.
(Mahler On the Couch screens June 27, 1:45 p.m., Regal Cinemas.)
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”