Mahler: Autopsy of a Genius
A film by Andy Sommer, written with Catherine Sauvat
Featuring contributions from Henry-Louis de la Grange, Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez, Philippe de Chalendar, Daniele Gatti, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Harding, Jonathan Nott and others
In English, German and French
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo
EUROARTS 2058838 [88:00]

It’s difficult to know who this film is aimed at, or what it’s trying to do. While there are plenty of interesting aspects to it, it falls between a number of stools, being neither a biography of Mahler nor an analysis of his works. Its greatest plus is that our main guide through the film is Henry-Louis de la Grange, that most well informed and erudite of the composer’s biographers. De la Grange guides us through key signposts in Mahler’s life and he has plenty or fascinating anecdotes about the composer, such as the time when Mahler was temporarily abandoned in a forest as a child; when his father came to find him he found him completely at peace, communing with nature while barely seeing it, something de la Grange finds mirrored in the introduction to the First Symphony. There are other insights too, such as an interesting analysis of Mahler’s working methods at the Vienna Court Opera and a judgement of his long-term impact there. Most interesting are de la Grange’s own memories of Alma Mahler, someone it seems he has little love for (“she had become a monument”). He is amusing when talking about her fondness for alcohol and he suggests that, based on her letters and diaries from the time, Alma only came truly to understand Mahler at the very end of his life.

The film also has some big musical hitters contributing, most notably Boulez, Abbado and Harding, and we see extracts of the symphonies conducted by Bernstein in Vienna and Boulez and Abbado at Lucerne. However, the film’s problem is that there is barely any analysis of the music or whence it derives its power. Instead we get trite observations that should be obvious to anyone – at one point Abbado tells us that “For Mahler, nature is extremely important” – and interviews with, say, the percussionist who does the hammer-blows in the Sixth Symphony. Furthermore, the whole enterprise feels sketchy and overly selective: huge chunks of Mahler’s life are barely looked at and some of his key works are only referred to in passing, the Eighth Symphony not even that. The chapter headings and organisation of the film aren’t particularly enlightening either.

Much as I enjoyed some aspects, then, especially Abbado’s conducting of the final pages of the Ninth Symphony, this film left me feeling fundamentally unsatisfied. Somewhere out there must be a better film which either gives us a proper biography of the composer or an analysis of his music or even, should we dare to hope, a film that does both.

Simon Thompson

It’s difficult to know who this film is aimed at, or what it’s trying to do. Neither a biography of Mahler nor an analysis of his works.