The nice thing about High Modern films is that you can go back to them repeatedly and find something new each time. Such opportunity moves beyond discovering an overlooked detail or charmed moment in an old favorite because modernist films can be understood only by accepting their open construction as integral to their purpose, with no single “correct” reading. They are designed to be watched more than once.
A film like Gustav Mahler: To Live, I Will Die is a good example. While ostensibly a bio-pic, it does not dramatize the composer’s life nor pretend that we are witnessing events as they occur. With voice of God narration, period photographs and spoken excerpts from letters and diaries, in many ways it feels more like a documentary, except that there are also actors in period dress speaking directly to the camera, in a kind of pseudo-interview format. The only time Mahler himself speaks is when he is reading excerpts in voiceover from one of his letters. We do not actually see him speaking with the result that he ends up as much an object as a subject.
By eschewing drama, writer-director Wolfgang Lesowsky’s recreation of Mahler’s life and era is both synoptic and partial. Most of what we learn about the composer’s private life is conveyed through the testimony of the women in his life, for example. Their description is incomplete and unflattering and more to the point, it does not convince as a fully-rounded description of the man, much less his significance as an artist.
The social context is revealed by three Viennese men debating the virtue of Mahler and his work over coffee and drinks in a café. Shot in third-person style, with costumed actors reading scripted, dramatized lines without acknowledging the camera, these scenes exploit the distillation of essences that traditional methods make possible, but are thereby inevitably limited by dramatic convention. Effectively, Lesowsky inverts expectations by treating the personal material like a documentary and the social background as drama. Both remain engaging despite, or perhaps even because of the unconventional treatment.
What many viewers may find harder to accept are the lengthy passages with nothing but Mahler’s music played against images of sylvan landscapes. Purists will no doubt balk at Mahler’s work turned into program music, while viewers hoping for a story will probably get irritated waiting for something to happen.
Yet for all the time devoted to the music, we learn very little about it as music. By being numbered, at least the development of the symphonies can be inferred indirectly, but there is no effort to clarify the relative importance of individual works. It is almost as if the film is deliberately withholding the most important pieces from the jigsaw of Mahler’s life. The results may frustrate or fascinate, but whatever the reaction, it will probably change on the next viewing. That is both the price and the reward of the modernist method.