The question really isn’t why the conductor-composer Gustav Mahler had a therapy session with the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in the summer of 1910 but what took him so bloody long. Mahler’s celebrated musical output — turbulent song cycles and gargantuan symphonies — represents the ne plus ultra of Late Romanticism, and his works swirl with a neurosis as insistent as it is overpowering. By all accounts, the man was a handful himself: impassioned, ambitious, insecure, death-obsessed. Nor was he happy that his much younger wife, Alma, had recently started groping the up-and-coming architect Walter Gropius.
No one actually knows what Mahler and Freud talked about in their meeting, and since historical uncertainty is a boon to moviemakers (see: “Amadeus” and “Immortal Beloved”), we have “Mahler on the Couch,” a film written and directed by the father-son team of Percy and Felix Adlon. (Percy Adlon gave us “Sugarbaby” and “Baghdad Café” back in the 1980s.) It’s an over-stylized and overwrought affair, and intentionally so — any other approach probably wouldn’t play fair to the music or these tempestuous lives. But a little of it goes a long way, and fast.
Mahler is sympathetically played by Johannes Silberschneider as a poetic soul riddled by doubts, his grand artistic ideals undermined by the shabbiness of his wife’s affair. He keeps canceling the appointment; Freud (Karl Markovics), who has seen it all before, practically has to nail his patient to the couch. The film uses the session as a gateway to sumptuous flashbacks detailing the couple’s relationship; when we see scenes in which Mahler wasn’t even present, Freud drily accuses the composer of making them up. (I guess that’s one way to counter the “Alma Problem” of the real Alma’s notoriously dodgy memoirs; by introducing a “Mahler Problem.”)
The problem with “Mahler on the Couch,” by contrast, is that it’s really Alma’s story, not Gustav’s, and those framing sequences become a distraction. As portrayed alarmingly and well by Barbara Romaner, the character’s not a great beauty but a seductive, destructive life force whose sexuality bursts the constraints of her time. She could be a Klimt painting sprung to life (not coincidentally, she probably had a thing with him, too). The film’s sex scenes are frank, hotter than Mahler and some audience members might bear, and they imply that Alma was living all the passion that her husband could only put into his scores.
Because he wouldn’t let her compose her own music? That’s the movie’s reductive spin, and there’s historical evidence to support it. But “Mahler on the Couch” doesn’t let us hear Alma’s compositions, so busy is the soundtrack with the husband’s titanic soundscapes. Mahler’s music gives weight to the onscreen drama but also undercuts it, ennobles the characters’ emotions and mocks them as melodramatic sturm und drang. The Adlons are playing a tricky game here, and the only hint of their larger intentions may be the sardonic gleam in Freud’s otherwise impassive face.
Taken in the right spirit, “Mahler on the Couch” is overripe, sometimes enjoyably ridiculous Famous Lives nonsense, with walk-throughs by Gropius (Friedrich Mücke), Klimt (Manuel Witting), Bruno Walter (Michael Dangl), and other lights of the Vienna scene. But the questions it doesn’t quite ask linger when the lights come up. What’s a creative woman to do in a society where only men get to be the artists? What happens when she turns her own life into art?