The astonishingly gripping music of this late Romantic composer who redefined the symphonic form and expression is quoted in many films to underscore moments of overflowing joy or anguish. Mahler's music can be found in approximately 47 features such as La Prisonnière (1968); the outrageous film noir The Honeymoon Killers (1969); Alice in the Cities (1974); the tale of the famous German writer of American Westerns who never saw a cowboy, Karl May (1974); the comedy Akhalgazrda kompozitoris mogzauroba (Trip of a Young Composer, 1984); the Charles Bukowski-inspired Barfly (1987); Tampopo (1985); The Children's War (1985); Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons in Darkness, 1992); the heartbreaking medical film Lorenzo's Oil (1992) which employs the Symphony No. 5; Paragraph 175 (1999) which also quotes from the Symphony No. 5; and Bride of the Wind (2001).
Luchino Visconti's Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971) employs excerpts from Mahler's Symphony No. 3 and Symphony No. 5 sparingly throughout the film. Appearing slowly under the opening credits, a swell in the music introduces the image of an aging man, the composer Gustav Aschenbach (a name suggesting Mahler and a failed composer, literally "ashes in the brook" or "ashes of Bach," the character played by Dirk Bogarde), on the deck of a boat seeming to recall unnamed but tragic emotions, perhaps of loss. As he reflects out loud later, a friend plays from one of the symphonies on the piano. Pointed contrasts are made between this music of turbulent emotions just below the surface and the cheesy hotel music for the guests and their bourgeois concerns. The beginning tragic love theme is heard again as Aschenbach decides to leave the resort in Venice and avoid further contact with his remote beloved boy. By fortunate luck, his trunk is lost and he must stay in Venice, and a sly smile appears on his face as the music once again builds becoming more major in key and hopeful. He wanders the beach again, remembering happier days. The music beautifully patches together this long sequence of disparate scenes. Tragic music is heard again as Aschenbach, becoming ill himself, tours the parts of Venice which have been touched by a pestilence hidden from the tourists. He briefly encounters his beloved one there, the mixed emotions of physical illness and forbidden love hauntingly expressed. The music is last heard in the heartbreaking scene where Aschenbach slowly dies in his beach chair as he watches the unattainable ideal young boy wade in the ocean at sunset.
Ken Russell's Mahler (1974) captures the loves, triumphs, and tragedies of the composer's life in scenes of exaggerated reality and tortured fantasy. Especially memorable is the wonderful Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) sequence with Mahler's two little daughters, Maria Anna (1902-1907) and Anna Justina, running to avoid the building winds of a storm. Other dramatic underscorings occur after Mahler visits an old friend, composer Hugo Wolf, who has become mentally ill, and in the dream scenes that presage the rise of fascism.