The strange affliction mentioned in the title is an obsession with numbers. Russell portrays Bruckner as something like an obsessive compulsive. The movie begins with Bruckner arriving at a country home where a man and a woman in a nurse’s uniform await him. He has counted the spokes and the rotations of the wheel and tells his new acquaintances. He counts the letters in their names when they introduce themselves. He is then dunked repeatedly in an ice bath. Bruckner has been sent to receive mental health treatment without his consent, but is more upset that that his wards chose to dunk him four times. It’s not a good number.
And so the movie goes, comprised of vignettes punctuated by treatment, which mostly seems to be lots of ice baths and warm broth fed to him by pretty nurse Grete. Anton’s days seem to be spent walking outdoors, communing with nature and counting various parts of it, although on an early sojourn his caretakers bring him to confession, where the priest is clearly nonplussed by Bruckner’s whole person, particularly his funny definition of the term “self-abuse” (Bruckner means that he was abusing himself by reading the music to one of his critically reviled symphonies; by the same words the priest intends something rather different). The priest pronounces his penance: to play Bach’s Fugue in D Minor. Anton walks out of the confessional, to the church organ, and does exactly that.
The real Bruckner was indeed a gifted organist, and a very devout man, as well as a lonely one. In his mind he linked spiritual purity to youth so concretely that as a music teacher he often found himself longing for his teenaged female students. He even proposed to many of them, although none of them ever accepted and by all accounts he likely died chaste and unhappy over it. These details figure into the movie, as do other stories and rumors about the historical figure.
Still, I do not think I’ve ever read that Bruckner was hospitalized for mental illness, although I confess that I’ve only read a short biography many years ago. Accept the fiction. Russell is making a film about the character of Bruckner the musician. The strange affliction, as regimented and earthly as anything can be, finally breaks down against the wonder of infinity, the nearly dissonant, polyphonic nature of God’s creation as represented by the millions of stars or the hairs on a woman’s body. These things cannot be quantifiably counted, and to even attempt would cheapen them. Bruckner’s affliction stands in contrast to that.