A Strange Brotherhood
From what we know of history, Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite. His writings about Jews were important to and embraced by Hitler and the Nazi party. However, this film teaches us something we did not know about Wagner and that is that many of Wagner’s closest associates were Jews – young musicians who became personally devoted to him, and provided crucial help to his work and career. Even more interesting is that as Wagner called for the elimination of the Jews from Germany, many of his most active supporters were Jewish.
I am sure that some of you are thinking what I thought when I first learned this— why were Jews drawn to him and with all of the hate for Jews that he harbored how could he accept them? These two questions are what this film answers and it is, incidentally, the first film to look at Wagner and his personal relationships with Jews (I almost feel like using the word Jew here is an anti-Semitic act). I remember all to well the volatile arguments that went on in Israel when I lived there as to whether or not the Israeli Philharmonic could play Wagner’s music.
The film was made in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and through the use of archival sources, re-enactments, interviews, and performances of original musical works by Wagner’s Jewish colleagues, we get a different look at Richard Wagner. The film also looks at the controversy in Israel and Zubin Mehta; the conductor of the Israel Philharmonic is interviewed here, as is Leon Botstein. The questions remain the same throughout history: “is it possible to separate the art from its creator? Can sublime music transcend prejudice and bigotry, and the weight of history”?
Directed by Hilan Warshaw the film is an intense look at the Wagner situation and does so evenly. The issue is still as complex as it has always been and because the director himself is a musician, he is able to look at the issue “polyphonically, pursuing many different voices and balancing contradictions, without once taking the floor himself at all.”
Wagner changed the face of the music of the west and he was without doubt a musical genius. But Wagner was also a hateful man—egotistical, selfish, a betrayer of friends, and a liar. His writings about the Jews are disgusting and vile and he was the personification of anti-Semitism. His essays were vitriolic rants that often crossed over into the delusional. Later Hitler adopted his writings and they helped cause even more hate in Germany.
How could it have been that Wagner had many rich Jewish supporters and admirers? He had Jewish musicians and conductors working for him, some who considered Wagner their mentor. Who were they? Why did they work for him or give him money? This documentary looks into stories of Jews who worked with Wagner or were tutored by him— Carl Tausig, a piano prodigy who was 16 when Wagner mentored him; Joseph Rubinstein, pianist and composer, and, most tragically, Herman Levy, a proud and accomplished conductor, the chief conductor of the Munich Orchestra, who was bullied and belittled by Wagner yet conducted the first performances of the Ring Cycle and Parsifal. We learn of the history of Wagner and the Jews as well as whether Wagner’s music should be banned in Israel. The eternal question pops up again and again— can or should we separate the person from his art? Wagner is the ultimate test of this question.
The DVD has several extras: Extended Interviews • Musical Performance: Rubinstein’s Parsifal • Deleted Scene: Death in Venice • Filmmaker Interview