Third Ear

A classical music critic’s take on ‘Mahler on the Couch’

Examining the enduring genre of the composer biopic.

Johannes Silberschneider as Gustav Mahler and Karl Markovics as Sigmund Freud in “Mahler on the Couch.”
National Center for Jewish Film
Johannes Silberschneider as Gustav Mahler and Karl Markovics as Sigmund Freud in “Mahler on the Couch.”

On Aug. 26, 1910, outside a cafe in the Dutch city of Leiden, Gustav Mahler met Sigmund Freud. They spent four hours together in deep discussion while walking the streets of that university town. They never met again.

Few details of their conversation are known, but the meeting of these two titans has a way of haunting the imagination. Mahler was in his final year of life and at the height of his composing career when he went to seek Freud’s counsel on his tumultuous marriage. Strong similarities linked the two men: They came from similar family backgrounds, were four years apart in age, buffeted by the same Viennese cultural winds, and in their respective fields, each had been charting a new topography of the soul.

These sorts of powerfully suggestive encounters can sometimes translate into great theater (witness the success of Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen,” about the meeting of the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg). And yet I confess I approached “Mahler on the Couch,” a new German film that dramatizes the Freud-Mahler summit, with a fair amount of trepidation. This had nothing to do with the film itself and everything to do with the whole vexed genre of the composer biopic.


It would be easy, in a way, for a classical music critic to simply dismiss most biopics, with their unholy union of biography and melodrama. So many films, after all, can come across as vulgar exercises in distortion and myth-mongering. The 2006 “Copying Beethoven,” to cite just one film, centers on the flowering of a relationship between the composer and a young willowy female copyist who helps him with his Ninth Symphony. But that entire conceit was pure fiction. And of course the enormous liberties taken in Milos Forman’s much more popular “Amadeus” have evinced howls of protest from purists far and wide.

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The more interesting question, though, is not whether these films are accurate, but more simply why they keep coming? It turns out that the genre has been around for much longer than one might realize. John Tibbets begins his meticulous survey “Composers in the Movies” in the early 1930s, when Alfred Hitchcock directed “Waltzes From Vienna,” about Johann Strauss Jr. Over the years, composers from Bax to Bartok, Dvorak to Delius, Strauss to Shostakovich, have all received the biopic treatment. It’s enough to make you step back and wonder about the roots of our lingering desire to transpose these figures from concert hall to screen.

The idea of genius is a source of endless popular fascination, and these films, fundamentally, are about mediating genius. They seduce us with the prospect of attaining intimacy with genius, with touching an untouchable past. We want to know how it felt to be a fly on the wall of a historic premiere, to watch the astonishment on the face of the Holy Roman Emperor when brought face to face with Mozart’s brilliance in his Viennese court, to watch Beethoven himself conducting his Ninth Symphony.

While we’re at it, perhaps we also don’t mind the chance to domesticate these gods, to bring them down to our level, to feel ourselves shocked by their warts. Tom Hulce’s ear-piercing laugh as Mozart was capable of stripping wallpaper from a wall, but “Amadeus” struck such a chord in part by reveling in the very disjunction between the composer’s crudeness — or the film’s imagined portrait of it — and the utter sublimity of his art.

Naturally, directors of composer biopics face a set of unique challenges in the very task of depicting musical creation. While there is a clear visual dimension when President Lincoln delivers virtuosic speeches or Jackson Pollock splatters paint, how exactly should it look to create a symphony? Finding a vividly theatrical answer to this question often pushes directors toward their boldest, or most egregious, moves. It’s no coincidence that the most famous scene in “Amadeus” may be the image of Mozart on his deathbed passionately dictating to Salieri the completion of his Requiem (cue the chorus of cringing musicologists). Or in Ken Russell’s “Mahler,” we watch the composer in his hut literally whisking the sounds of nature directly into his symphony.


Of course, other routes are possible. One of the most joyfully entrancing of the musical biographies I’ve seen is Francois Girard’s “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.” Its theme-and-variations approach interweaves documentary-style interviews and fanciful re-creation with moments of hypnotic visual poetry, even animation. The movie’s lack of a single closed narrative seems truer to the tangle of contradictions left behind by Gould’s life, his ideas, and his art. It also incorporates generous amounts of Gould’s own writing, which lends a crackling intellectuality and charismatic eccentricity. In essence, the whole thing becomes Gouldian in its spirit, a leap that tends to make small questions of biographic accuracy seem all but irrelevant.

As for “Mahler on the Couch,” opening on Nov. 30 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, it turns out I was right to temper expectations, though there are some funny, sharply drawn moments. Freud (Karl Markovics) and Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) first meet in Freud’s hotel.

“What can I do for you, Herr Direktor Mahler?” Freud asks grandly as he sits down for business, taking a puff on his cigar and checking his pocket watch with a practiced glance. Mahler is reluctant to begin, so Freud raises the subject of the composer’s young wife, who is having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius. “How much younger is she?” asks Freud. “Does it matter?” shoots back Mahler, the psychoanalytic naif. “Yes,” Freud snorts, the confidence of his entire new creed distilled into a single syllable. He knowingly pats the back of his couch and suggests that they begin their session. Within seconds Mahler is bolting for the door.

But the film, alas, is not ultimately about this tantalizing meeting. The Freud character quickly recedes into a mere framing device, as Mahler’s romance with his wife, Alma (Barbara Romaner) becomes the dominating focus, summarized in long flashback sequences going back to their early days in the cultural hothouse of Vienna.

Despite its seductive title, the film declines to put Mahler on the couch in more imaginative ways, and leaves relatively untouched his fascinating childhood (which we know from surviving records did, of course, come up in his actual consultation with Freud). It also barely touches on other potentially rich themes such as his complex religious journey, his eventful time in America, his fraught dual career as conductor and composer, and of course, the meaning — the meaning! — of his music. What light might a conversation with Freud have shed on the nature of Mahler’s symphonies, with their dizzying swings from the vulgar to the lofty, their lacerating ironies, and their heartfelt depictions of a world removed from pain? We know, from one of Mahler’s passing comments, that they did at least wade into this terrain, but directors Percy Adlon and Felix O. Adlon don’t seem much interested. Mahler’s own music is reduced to little more than a mirror of his grand, tumultuous love with Alma.


Whatever was actually said between Mahler and Freud in 1910, the session proved to be of great help to Mahler. The composer later wrote to Alma, “Freud was quite right — you were always for me the light and the central point.” He quickly made his way to Munich, where he would lead the premiere of his Eighth Symphony, in many ways the final crowning moment of his career. It was quite the scene, with an audience of some 3,000 people, including European royalty, prominent writers, and composers like Richard Strauss, Anton Webern, Paul Dukas, and Camille Saint-Saens. No doubt we’ll see it one day, at the movies.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached