Shutter Island: Mahler’s Musical Fragments, Irony, and Fairy Tale

Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller, Shutter Island (2010) follows the character Teddy Daniels in his pursuit of a missing patient from the island’s prison for the mentally ill. The film opens with a ship’s silhouette emerging from the fog, and the dark rich tones are immediately set. It comes as no surprise then that the film received praise for its overall atmosphere. As the film progresses, the audience feels the looming sense of doom that hangs over the island. Scorsese’s ability to pull us into the narrative is not done solely through the strong visual. The soundtrack is effectively employed to convey the film’s complex psychological themes. Scorsese’s careful use of sound indicates the care he uses when constructing his film’s auditory landscape. Each note is used to convey a message, whether or not the audience makes the connections consciously.

The poster for the film conveys the tone
Spooky Scary Shutter Island

When sound is employed effectively, the audience will not only hear it but also feel it. The sound will have an impact on the audience’s relationship to the scene. What the audience might not fully recognize is the weight of a particular piece in the film’s context. This is exactly the case for Shutter Island and the use of composer Gustav Mahler. Chamber music is not a genre that general audiences have an in-depth knowledge of so there are other similar pieces that might have evoked that same emotional reaction. Even another Mahler piece might have been selected for the film, but the song used is Mahler’s “Piano Quartet in A Minor”, often referred to as Piano Quartet.

An audience might recognize immediately the instrumentation of the song as being comprised of piano, violin, viola, and cello. Audiences associate certain sounds to the desired emotional response. Strings usually convey a tremendous amount of emotion that audiences can gauge their reaction against. The trembling of the strings will cause anxiety and indicate fear. A long drawn out note might convey longing or love. The strings in this particular context take on a more nuanced meaning because of the man who arranged them and how this arrangement speaks to the scene. The song first plays as Teddy Daniels, and the audience, are introduced to the living quarters of the doctor.

Unfinished and Unfulfilled

The piece was written early in Mahler’s career, either 1876 or 1877 (Johnson 100). It stands out among Mahler’s other work because it was written so early; and yet, it remained unfinished with only the first movement completed. The fact that the piece was never finished reflects our main character, Teddy Daniels. Teddy Daniels is a fragmented person trying desperately to understand the violence and the world around him. His own tragic life is filled with the loss of his wife and the violent world he was forced to witness. His inability to understand the trauma in his life causes a fracture to the “self.” The incomplete nature of this song becomes a reflection of the incomplete nature of Teddy. He feels isolated, fragmented, and unable to reconstruct himself.

After arriving to the island, Teddy meets with the doctors who run the facilities. When Teddy enters the doctor’s house, the Mahler piece plays. The song continues to play during a flashback of Teddy’s memory when he first heard the piece. It appears that the first time Teddy heard the piece was during WWII. The song plays over the images of Teddy at the concentration camp, and more disturbingly, over the botched suicide job of the Nazi officer. The floating documents that fill the room as Teddy walks in matches the cascading melodic lines of the Piano Quartet. We feel the discomfort Teddy feels because of the lightness of the piece paired with the bodies of prisoners. The slower tempo, along with the passion with which the notes are played, indicate a type of longing. The prisoners long for their freedom from death while the Nazi officer longs for the freedom death will provide. The song speaks to both sides while reflecting Teddy’s internal state.

The entire scene, and movie, has fairy tale qualities–albeit a dark one. This is partially achieved through the song’s melodic lines such as the richness of the song’s tone coupled with the short piano notes. These two qualities evoke a Grimm fairy tale feeling where the protagonist enters the dark woods on a quest. In the memory, Teddy is entering the dark woods that is the prison camp in attempt to rescue the prisoners. In the film, Teddy enters the dark woods of Shutter Island to rescue a prisoner. Teddy becomes lost and tries to find answers, and subconsciously, his self. These fairy tales relied upon magic, superstitions, and disobedience. For example, Hansel and Gretel, enter the dark woods only to be tricked by a witch. The films uses these same elements but rather than magic, Teddy faces deceit through science.

The Composer
The Composer

The fairy tale quality of the song stems from Mahler’s use of the Romantic tradition in his work. The haunting nature of the notes is attributed to the Romantic’s fascination with the supernatural. Mahler’s musical work is influenced by late Romanticism and early Modernism (Johnson 102). The influence of the Romanticism is heard in the expressions and the emotion. The influence of Modernism caused Mahler to focus on irony and challenging traditional musical structures. His work is not simplified to mere chronology because throughout his lifetime his work consisted of the tension between these genres. His work exists between two places in a musical grey area. Teddy is a character caught in the grey trying desperately to define himself. Mahler’s work is known for its strong voice, a very emotional voice, and yet, his early works often struggled to convey this voice. Teddy struggles to find his own true voice during the film, and by the end the audience is unaware if Teddy has ever found it.

It is not enough that the song parallels Teddy’s emotional and mental state. The complex nature of Teddy’s identity is tied to the provocative nature of using Mahler to begin with. One of the qualities respected in Mahler’s work is his ability to use irony and show the listener the constructed nature of the piece. Irony becomes a key element of the film upon a second viewing. The audience is aware watching again how often the dialogue takes on a double meaning. The music acts the same way. The audience is encouraged to examine whether Teddy remembers the song in the way he perceives. Due to questioning the source of Teddy’s memory, the audience becomes aware of the constructed nature of both the song and Teddy’s identity. To understand this further, we can begin with the location in which Teddy remembers the song being played for the first time, the concentration camp.

As Teddy’s memory shows, the Nazi officer has the song playing on vinyl while he lies in a pool of his own blood. The beautiful irony of the scene is that Mahler was Jewish. His music was banned in Germany during WWII. His music does not belong where it is being heard. The music is out of place just as Teddy is out of place. The volume of the song changes depending if the song is being heard by the current Teddy Daniels or in the memory. When it is in the present it remains at the bottom of the sound hierarchy with dialogue being heard much louder, while in the memory it moves to the top of the hierarchy. During the dialogue for present day Teddy, the faintness of the volume indicates Teddy’s memories of the song always lurking inside him.

While the memory of the song is always there so is the memory of the violence that accompanied it. The beauty of the song contrasted against the the violence evokes the irony and fairy tale qualities that make Mahler the ideal selection for the film. The fact that the song remained unfinished just as Teddy Daniels remained unfinished and a fragment. These are the details that an audience might not know when watching the film, but they can hear it. In the end, it could not have been any other piece. This one particular song represents the overall complexity and mastery found at the sonic level in Shutter Island. 

Works Cited and a Note from Author

Johnson, Julian. Mahler’s Voice: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

This piece began as a simple 500 word write-up on one song off the Shutter Island sound track for Dr. Elsie Walker of Salisbury University. It turned into something much larger and much more fascinating.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I liked the atmosphere and the build-up a lot. Maybe there’s more detail than I realised.

    • Celeste

      There is always small details that the audience never notice but they add to the overall effect of the film. Everything in film is a choice and this extends to the music as well. Thanks for reading.

  2. Luci Goldberg

    This movie is a great example of the “rule” that says a movie should always make you ask: “What happens next?”. The ending was utterly creepy and really messed with my mind. I thought about this movie for days after I’d seen it and still got chills.

    • Celeste

      Watching this film a second time is so much fun because you know the ending. Everything takes on new meaning. Watching it a second time does not mean the ending is any easier to figure out though. Thanks for reading!

  3. Great article. Clearly Mr Scorsese has studied The Master’s oeuvre and come up with a smart tribute hiding behind the schlock – horror label and the trappings of slasher – flickdom.

  4. Aaron Hatch

    Very well written article. I really want to re-watch Shutter Island now

  5. While I have the utmost respect for Scorsese and his work, this one just feels , to me, like Scorsese trying to do a Shyamalan movie.

    • Celeste

      While I can understand what you are saying I think that there is a major difference in Scorsese’s approach to this film. Everything in the film takes on a double meaning. Upon re-watching there is a new level of irony that becomes explicit. I feel in most “twist ending thrillers” this dedication to detail is not present. It is more than just re-watching knowing the ending and saying “oh how did I miss that”. It becomes an entirely different experience. Choices at the sonic level and all of the small details ensure that the film is read differently on each viewing. I think the soundtrack shows that their is a level of craft in this film that expands past the usual thriller tropes. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. The Strain

    Scorsese enjoying himself with this old-school throwback.

  7. The story was great and I liked how it is very subtle. You can’t be sure about anything.

  8. Shutter Island is a masterpiece. It is inarguably one of the greatest psychological thrillers I’ve ever seen. But then again, with Scorsese and DiCaprio, what could go wrong?

  9. The film was going straight initially and slowly it moved to the confusing events which raised my excitement to the high level and when finally the suspense was revealed i was just feeling that I watched “Masterpiece”!!!

  10. Jeffers

    Much the same as “Psycho” in many respects then.

  11. One of the best plot twists in any movie that I have ever watched. Seriously one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest movies because his acting was so perfect and the movie as a whole was one that you will never regret watching or will never forget watching.

  12. Shutter Island shakes you.

  13. Fontaine

    I liked the film’s maintaining of thriller throughout his whole duration and the adding of clues and confusion till the Conclusion was a smart move and after the Conclusion the film was at its best….

  14. DClarke

    Great job. I think that most people forget that music can play such an integral role beyond just setting an atmosphere. You have crafted a really good article here.

  15. I like the first half set-up, but like most films, it fell apart in the second half. Scorcese is so overrated.

  16. Really good in-depth article on a brilliant film!
    Shutter Island is all about the atmosphere created through the lighting, the colours, the sounds, the constant camera movements and that continuous sense of unease. Martin Scorsese at his finest! An exhibition on his work is about to start in Paris (if anyone is around there or thinking of going!), cannot wait 🙂

  17. Isabell Windham

    The atmosphere here was good. I like the idea of a spooky island with a mental institution on it.

  18. I really liked this topic to explore both music and film, and how art forms go hand in hand to create new meaning(s). I’d love to see more of this anytime!

  19. katherinelipczynski

    I read the book and watched the movie. It happens to be one of my favorite texts and one of my favorite films. It’s so dark, and the twist is incredible. Dennis LeHane really took audiences everywhere by surprise.

  20. Francesca Turauskis

    This film is really one of the best, most necessarily complex thrillers ever. “The beautiful irony of the scene is that Mahler was Jewish. His music was banned in Germany during WWII. His music does not belong where it is being heard. The music is out of place just as Teddy is out of place.” I did not know this, it really adds another meaning to it! Thank you 🙂

  21. I found this article very intriguing, especially since you compared the music to the main characters mood and behaviors through out the film. Most viewers when they see movies ignore the music and don’t actually match it up to actually mean something. So I think it was a fantastic idea for you to take the music score of this particular film and compare it to the various scenes that take place. Essentially it helps readers to better understand the film as well.

  22. I am pleased that you highlighted the significance of music in film and how it is not chosen as a bit of background noise, but is in fact selected to fit even the characters in the scene.

  23. Great article. I found your parallels between music and the characters’ emotions to be an intriguing read. Mahler is such a great fit for a film soundtrack. In regard to his symphonies, he famously said “a symphony must be like the world”. I think this statement rings true in his programmatic chamber works as well.

  24. Emily Inman

    I absolutely enjoyed reading every moment of your post. I am a big fan of Scorsese, especially ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘Taxi Driver’, etc. I think a soundtrack is what directs the viewer and the character(s). This was a wonderful read and I am looking forward to reading more. 🙂

  25. An excellent article! I really appreciate the added dimension that the history of this Mahler piece gives to the movie. All of Scorsese’s soundtrack choices seem to have this double resonance (This Bitter Earth / On the Nature of Daylight comes to mind).

    On a related note, I saw the same thing in the use of “Non, je ne regrette rien” where Nolan’s use of the french song is integral to the plot on some levels, but incredibly easy to miss on the first viewing. Yet the remainder of the score for Inception was composed by Hans Zimmer and specifically engages with the main theme, whereas the other songs on Scorsese’s Shutter Island are also pre-existing songs. I’m very interested to think more about how the previous cultural associations of the music affect their reception in a movie in contrast to the emotional effect of music composed solely for a particular movie.

  26. After watching this movie I immediately thought of “Inception” due to the mind boggling suspense DiCaprio is forced to encounter in both films.

  27. Luke R. McLaughlin

    A hugely underrated film, soundtrack included. It’s unfortunate it came out the same year as Inception. I prefer Shutter Island, but I am clearly in the minority. The story and score are far superior to Leo’s “other” role. Oh well, glad someone else appreciated it.

  28. As a film student striving to be a director, Martin Scorsese is such an influential director, Shutter Island being one of my personal favorites. The design aspect of Shutter Island is, well, “perfect”. The major plot twist of the film was one of the most underrated plot twists in the past decade of film, in my own opinion. With Leonardo DiCaprio as the lead, his acting talent is to envy, being able to play a huge variety of roles. His role in Shutter Island was so believable, acted out so well. Scorsese did an amazing job designing the film with the sound design, set, costuming and his casting of actors that it is as if we’re living with this people, going through life with them, and in my opinion, that is what makes an amazing film-if you feel like you yourself are in the movie, the director did an amazing job.

  29. Such a great article. Thanks. 🙂

  30. Étienne Guérin

    The Piano Quartet had a few performances in Mahler’s early years but then its manuscript went missing, only until it was discovered in Mahler’s ex-wife’s archive in 1964… The usage of this particular music in the context of the film and its chronology is then totally anachronistic!

  31. Thank you SO much for this beautiful, illuminating article. For some reason I keep coming back to this movie and this Mahler piece.

  32. Awesome article. I realized something was strange with the use of that piece when I saw on Wikipedia that Mahler was Jewish, but I hadn’t realized just how deeply that choice of music resonates with the film.

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