“Wagner and Me”
It is generally assumed that Richard Wagner is the world’s most controversial composer. Stephen Fry, actor and writer, has a passion for Wagner (as do many others) but Fry is Jewish and lost many family members in the Holocaust. This makes it very difficult to separate Nazism from Wagner’s music. The film addresses Wagner’s abhorrence of Jews as well as his influence in the genocide of World War II. We hear a bit about Wagner’s feelings for the Jews and we see how Wagner’s music inspired Adolf Hitler. The film tells us that it was Wagner’s use of mythical themes of good and evil that appealed to Hitler as well as the powerful crescendos that Wagner was known for. It was not difficult to more people who listened to Wagner.
Fry is a true Wagner fan–he’s-seen-every-opera, bought-every-possible-recording and then-gone-on-a-pilgrimage kind of way. When we see him speaking about Wagner, he is totally animated and has a hard time containing his excitement. It is Fry that makes this documentary entertaining. Without Fry this would been just another documentary.
Wagner is as famous for his anti-Semitism as he is for his music. The Third Reich often turned to him when music was needed for whatever reason. The question that arises out of this is whether it is possible to love Wagner (as Fry does) knowing that he wanted you dead. Fry is not only Jewish, he is also a homosexual and yet another reason for him to be killed during Nazi Germany.
The film follows Fry around Europe on a Wagnerian sightseeing tour in the hopes of understanding (by way of milieu) the composer’s infamous anti-Semitism and eventual co-opting by Nazi culture. Fry, with his typical everyman élan, explicitly narrates the purpose of the journey and the subsequent progress he makes, often pausing for colloquial, confessional asides. “I’m Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust,” he says early on. “I have to be sure I’m doing the right thing [by admiring Wagner].” This hesitation, however, doesn’t really cover his total love for Wagner.
There is a good explanation of Wagner’s feelings for those who are aware of the difficult life he led and he, through these remarks, becomes demystified. “A few opportunities are undoubtedly lost in the decision to withhold discussion of the composer’s philosophical tendencies; a brief mention of his affection for Schopenhauer’s double-edged theories, for example, may have been illuminating. But Fry’s myriad defenses of Wagner likably display the humanity he wishes to find in his operatic idol; at one point, he dreams of going backward in time and writing the composer a letter to warn him off of vocalizing his anti-Semitic views”.
Fry takes on the question of whether one can separate the composer from the man, who was an all-out anti-Semite? Fry, who is Jewish, lost relatives in the Holocaust. Fry seems to think from the outset that, yes, one can still love the music and be repelled by the man who wrote the racist rant “Jewishness in Music”. Fry then goes on to explain why Wagner moves him in a way that no other composer ever has, despite the music’s association with the Third Reich. Though Wagner died before Hitler was born, his descendants became extremely close friends to the dictator, who was an honored guest at the annual Bayreuth Festival, devoted only to operas by Wagner.
Fry speaks with historians; Wagner’s great-granddaughter, Eva Wagner-Pasquier; and a cellist who survived Auschwitz, where some of Fry’s relatives died. He is guided through his exploration but I was surprised that he did not speak of Israel’s ban on Wagner or speak with Daniel Barenboim who has opposed the ban.
The director and editor have done wonderful jobs here and the sound is excellent (as it needs to be). Director Patrick McGrady seems to have set his task on igniting a new appreciation for Wagner despite those black marks on his character. Only you can make that call.