Feminists In Focus: ‘Mahler on the Couch’ Without Jewish Guilt at the New York Jewish Film Festival

How refreshing to have the New York Jewish film festival open on Wednesday (Jan. 12) with an offering where the guilt is not Jewish. In “Mahler on the Couch,” the guilt emanates from the male ego of a musical genius (Gustav Mahler) suppressing the musical creativity of his wife – the much younger and super sexual Alma.

Mahler has been driven to the couch of Sigmund Freud by a love letter to his young wife from the even younger Walter Gropius, the future creator of Bauhaus.

Yes, Freud was Jewish. Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism. Several marriages and many affairs later, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel was the Nazi-loving wife of a Jew who escaped with her from Vienna to Hollywood. But we’re getting way, way beyond the scope of the film.

How delightful to come in from the January snows of New York to the lushness of Vienna in the 1900’s when everything was being invented – psychoanalysis, Secessionist art and architecture, Mahler’s and Schoenberg’s music. When it was too early to worry about the Fascists and the Nazis or even World War I.

Father and son writers-directors Percy and Felix Adlon have produced a script with wit and integrity, based on Mahler’s one-time session with Freud in 1910. The Adlons went to Mahler for the perfect soundtrack — the only completed movement of his last symphony. (“Mahler on the Couch” is a family project. Eleonore Adlon, Percy Adlon’s wife and partner, is the film’s producer. Their production company goes back to 1978, and one of their first features was “Baghdad Café.)

This 2010 German-Austrian production is in German with English subtitles. In one of those serendipitous moments, the Adlons found three out of their four leads all performing in the same play in Munich. A major find — the relatively unknown Barbara Romaner plays the relatively young Alma Mahler the way you’d like her to be – a force of nature irresistible to creative men.

For those who like their Jewish film festivals heavy on the Jewish, the 20th New York Jewish Film Festival presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (through Jan. 27) has plenty of Israeli, U.S., Polish and numerous other nations’ films with obviously Jewish subject matter. I’ll leave it to the doctoral students to analyze how American Jewish film festivals have expressed Jewish identity over the years. Are we getting more nervous? Less nervous as American Jews?

Certainly Jewish film festivals are creatures of their locations. In San Francisco, the festival has the excitement of being the city’s major Jewish event. As one festival regular said, “It’s our High Holidays.”  New Yorkers are more blasé. One woman arrived with a huge L.L. Bean canvas bag holding her cross-country skis. She’d gotten in some skiing in Central Park before hitting the festival.

Meanwhile, hopefully this year’s choice of festival opener will help “Mahler on the Couch” get U.S. distribution. Otherwise, we can hope it makes it to  Netflix.

For the full life story of Alma, on and off the couch, the bed, and just about everywhere else except sitting down to compose, see Alma’s Life. But even reading between the lines, we’ll never know what she might have created as a composer had she ever gone back to music after Mahler insisted on only one composer in the family, and he was the one.

Note from the editor: Check out this video of the classic Tom Lehrer ode to Alma.

-Amy Stone