When he began working with his father, Percy Adlon, on the script for their new film “Mahler on the Couch,” Felix O. Adlon felt a heavier than usual weight on his shoulders.
“My father and I had huge discussions about this,” he admitted last week in a telephone interview from his office in Vienna. “Where does Mahler’s becoming Catholic fit in? I’m a converted Jew and I feel a sense of responsibility.”
As is suggested by the title of the film, which opens on May 18, the film’s central characters are Gustav Mahler and his fellow Viennese-by-way-of-Bohemia, Sigmund Freud. Based in part on fact, the story focuses on a single night, when Mahler (Johannes Silberschneider) seeks out Freud (Karl Markovics) while the latter is on a vacation. Mahler’s beloved wife Alma (Barbara Romaner) is having an affair with Walter Gropius and has contrived to let him know about it. Now, the despondent, frazzled composer-conductor must fight off his resistance to therapy and open up to the good doctor.
Therein resided Felix’s dilemma.
“[The conversion] is a defining moment in his life,” the filmmaker explained. “Mahler became a Catholic in order to work. But to tell our story, it would have been difficult to go backwards. Structurally, [the narrative line] dictates what’s important here and what isn’t. Religion ends up being completely unimportant.”
Not that it was an easy decision, he said with a sigh. “We went back and forth on it.”
In an added irony, Freud’s Jewish identity, as fraught as Mahler’s even though the father of psychoanalysis never considered conversion, took on great importance in his life and thought only after the First World War, five years after Mahler’s death.
Yet the scenes between the two men — the strongest material in the film — possess a distinctly Jewish feel and give the movie a comic edge that lifts it out of its world of self-absorbed people whose limited fields of perception are both literal and figurative.
Father-son collaborations are unusual but not unprecedented in cinema. After all, actor Walter Huston won his only Oscar working for his son John, the director and writer of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” And co-directing brothers are thick on the ground, from the Tavianis to the Coens to the Wachowskis, to name only a few.
But if father-son directing teams are rare, the situation didn’t seem the least bit odd to Felix.
“I’ve worked with my dad and for my dad since I’m 12,” he said, laughing. “I pulled focus [on the camera crew] on a documentary for him then. He produced my first feature film [1999’s ‘Eat Your Heart Out’]. This was a natural progression for us.”
The key to a smooth directorial collaboration, Adlon said, is “a mutual understanding that film is a collaborative art form. But that’s true for everyone there. Everyone brings their taste to the table and we as directors are fortunate enough to be able to do something with them.
“Working with my father was easy, a good experience. We have different approaches. My father works in the analog world. He will not work with a monitor. He stands next to the camera. He feels that he lends the actors his eyes and ears completely and the actors love that.”
Felix, who turns 45 in June, is an artist for the new century.
“I work differently than my father,” he said. “I will be next to the camera but with a monitor at hand. But I left that space for him this time. I worked with the director of photography, Benedict Neuenfels [best-known here for his work on ‘The Counterfeiters’]. We would watch the video monitor to make sure that we had everything we needed. If I hadn’t had an eye on what gets on the [camera’s micro] chip, we would have suffered.”
That role presented its own problems. As Adlon said, “There were instances when I couldn’t be closer to the action. On one occasion, there was a mountain in the way. I would have to sprint to get to my father and the actors and tell them I wanted to try something else.”
Regardless of which Adlon enjoyed pride of place beside the camera, the collaboration was fun for both men — enough fun that they are still working together. They have have already begun work on their next project, an ensemble piece about a group of retirees in New Mexico, something of a return to world of Percy’s 1987 hit “Baghdad Cafe.”
As for the Mahler project, despite the light touch that the Adlons bring to this rather flamboyant material, Felix is not expecting a huge theatrical success. But the film is enjoying a surprisingly successful second life.
“It’s a difficult film,” he said, “But it is having a great life in Jewish film festivals. I love that.”
“Mahler on the Couch,” directed by Felix O. Adlon and Percy Adlon, opens May 18 at the Howard Gilman Theater at the Eleanor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Lincoln Center (144 W. 65th St.). For information, go to http://www.filmlinc.com/films/on-sale/mahler-on-the-couch