In August of 1910, after discovering that his wife, Alma, had been having an affair with Walter Gropius (Friedrich Mücke), Gustav Mahler traveled to the Netherlands to consult Sigmund Freud, and they spent four hours walking about Leiden and talking. We don't know exactly what they said, but Mahler on the Couch, from the father-and-son directing team of Percy and Felix Adlon, offers some creative speculation, with flashbacks detailing the crisis points of the marriage and snatches from the anguished first movement of Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony.
The best part of the film is the back-and-forth between Karl Markovics's ironic, practical Freud and Johannes Silberschneider's anxious, insistent Mahler, and never mind that Mahler didn't actually spend the night on a couch in Freud's hotel room continuing their session. What's not quite right is Silberschneider (who played Alma's composition teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky, in 2001's Bride of the Wind ) in flashback: he's too naive and obsequious to be credible as the director of the Vienna State Opera and the greatest composer of his day. His marriage to Alma (Barbara Romaner), moreover, is all about sex, or rather the lack of it; hair blowing in the wind, Romaner is here a free spirit who's tempting Gustav Klimt (Manuel Witting) one moment and letting Zemlinsky (Mathias Franz Stein) feel her up under the piano the next. When Mahler insists Alma give up composing, the Adlons have her reply, "My compositions are my life; I would die for them," without noting that she hardly returned to them even after Mahler's death.
Lena Stolze is a grounding presence as Mahler's sister, Justine; Eva Mattes is catty and cocksure as Alma's mother. But Mahler on the Couch doesn't plumb any psychological depths. It's a decent addition to the modest list of films about the composer, but no substitute for Mahler, Ken Russell's 1974 comic-strip classic.
Directed and written by Percy and Felix O. Adlon :: With Johannes Silberschneider, Barbara Romaner, Karl Markovics, Friedrich Mücke , Matthias Franz Stein, Lena Stolze, Manuel Witting :: German ::National Center for Jewish Film :: 98 minutes :: Coolidge Corner