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By contrast, Bruckner's Decision focuses for the most part on just the three-month period in 1867 that the composer spent at a spa/sanatorium called Bad Kreuzen, located in the mountains about midway between Linz and Vienna. The film is photographed in a rather grainy black and white that's no doubt intended to have a "period" look. Bruckner (1824-1896) had recently suffered a nervous breakdown and then went to the spa renowned for its cold water cures. The regimen there was strict and involved a bewildering variety of cold showers, cold baths (starting as early as 4:00 AM), swims in the nearby lake, cold water cloth wraps, massages, and the drinking of as many as 10 liters of water daily. All of these excruciating rituals are enacted in the film with boringly tedious detail.
In the first of its many musical anachronisms (like the clocks striking the hour in Julius Caesar when clocks were yet to be invented), the film begins with the introductory bars of the Bruckner Fifth (1877), and displays an early photo of the composer with a full head of black hair and a neatly-trimmed moustache (it's dated in Schönzeler's 1970 biography as being from either 1854 or 1863). We are then switched to an enactment of Bruckner giving his first lecture in 1868 as professor of counterpoint and harmony at Vienna. He had finally made his "decision" to leave Linz and take his chances in the nation's capital. The actor cast as Bruckner (Joachim Bauer), despite a far less prominent nose and softer features, looks much like the photo, which suggests a man in his early thirties (in 1868, Bruckner actually was age 42).
What next unfolds is the film's primary narrative device: a series of letters (spoken as interior monologues) between a young German architect named Otto and his wife Sophia. Otto, a fellow patient of Bruckner's at Bad Kreuzen, has gone there "to find himself," but he never once appears in the film. Otto's letters to Sophia are filled with comments and speculations about Bruckner (Sophia soon realizes Otto is merely avoiding his own problems by rattling on about the composer). We thus learn about Bruckner's acute numeromania (an obsession with counting things like stars in the sky, leaves on trees, his daily prayers, as if some sense of order could thus be imposed on the chaos of life), his morbid interest in seeing the dead body of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (brother of Austria's Emperor Franz Joseph I), the admiration for Wagner's "breaking the rules" of traditional harmony, and his recent but quite innocent infatuation with a young female spa attendant named Josephine Lang (who looks to be about age 25 here). These exchanges between Otto and Sophia are interspersed with letters written by Bruckner to his brother Alois and various friends, plus a flashback "tour" of Saint Florian Monastery, where Bruckner, at age 12, was sent by his widowed mother.
This ploddingly paced film has many repetitive and over-long sequences showing Bruckner dog-paddling his way across the lake, praying, and taking long walks in the woods (in one of the latter, we hear an incredibly slow and pompous account of the Bruckner Ninth Scherzo--some 25 years before the music was written). All of the orchestral music in the film is credited to Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic, while the piano items are played with steel-fingered efficiency by Michael Ponti.
The film is at its most preposterous near the close, when Bruckner happens to witness his beloved Josephine swimming and exchanging kisses with a young man. We then get a ludicrous "dream" sequence that combines the Adagio of Bruckner's Eighth (composed nearly 20 years later!) with a vision of Josephine frolicking naked in the lake. However, it seems that all those cold water cures somehow "liquidated" Bruckner's health problems, and the film ends with the composer in 1868 writing music on a chalkboard in front of his class at Vienna (apparently the Ninth Symphony's Adagio, no less).
What we have here is essentially a "silent" movie: none of the characters speak to the camera and only are heard via letter narrations. Bauer "acts" Bruckner as a stolid and expressionless nebbish, and a different "actor" (Peter von Fontano) is the actual voice of Bruckner throughout. The film's only sympathetic performance comes from the attractive Sophia (actress Sophie von Kessel), who appealingly emotes her way through the reading of Otto's letters and in writing her replies. It turns out that Otto and Sophia are total fabrications by writer-director Schmidt-Garre: they never existed. There was in fact a Josephine Lang in Bruckner's life, but she was a local girl at Linz and never worked at Bad Kreuzen. Bruckner's rather pathetic marriage proposal to Josephine in 1867 was rejected by her parents mainly due to the absurd age difference (Josephine was 17, while Bruckner was then 43).
Unless you are interested in 80 minutes' worth of water torture and pseudo-documentary, I would suggest avoidance of this hugely disappointing film. -- Fanfare, Jeffrey J. Lipscomb, Jan-Feb 2010