Wagner & Me - SideReel Review

Wagner & Me - SideReel Review

Stephen Fry loves the music of celebrated 19th century German composer Richard Wagner, and it only takes a few minutes for the documentary Wagner & Me to make that abundantly clear. Wagner is Fry’s favorite composer, and to watch him listen to Wagner’s music, which happens quite often in this film, is to see a man transported and transformed by art. There’s something in the grand swell of emotions in Wagner’s best music that obviously speaks to Fry in a profound way, and in many respects this is a movie about one man’s long-term love affair with a body of music, and his desire to understand everything about it.

However, that same music has some very unfortunate historical associations, and that’s another major aspect of Wagner & Me. Richard Wagner’s best-known and most infamous fan was Adolf Hitler; the dictator wrote often of his fondness for Wagner’s music, cited the philosophical interpretation of his work as a key inspiration to him in his youth, and was an annual visitor to the Bayreuth Festival, in which Wagner’s ambitious operas are staged in a theater designed with the participation of the composer himself. Hitler was also good friends with Wagner’s sons, particularly Siegfried Wagner, who through marriage was related to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a notoriously anti-Semitic British author and historian. And in 1869, Wagner published a bitter, inflammatory essay called "Judaism in Music," in which he argued that Jews were having a negative influence on art and culture. This would be enough to give pause to most people with a conscience, but there’s also a personal connection for Stephen Fry: He’s Jewish, and members of his family died in the Third Reich’s death camps during World War II. So how does one separate Wagner’s beautiful and innovative music from the opinions of its author and the impact it had on one of the most evil men in history?

In Wagner & Me, Stephen Fry faces the matter of Wagner’s cultural legacy head-on, but also with a certain degree of reluctance. Fry is a fan of his music first and foremost, and with the intelligence, wit, and engagement that has made him as celebrated as a writer and commentator as he is as an actor and comedian, he offers a fascinating look into Wagner’s life and art, as well as an exploration into what made his work so innovative. Fry glows with genuine awe as he visits the Bayreuth Theater and chats with the people staging a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and when he travels to Russia to speak with Valery Gergiev as he stages one of Wagner’s operas in a venue where the composer once led the orchestra, he seems delighted to speak with someone who is as much of a fan as himself. It clearly pains Fry to have to discuss Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his family’s vague connection to Hitler, but he doesn’t turn away from what makes him uncomfortable. Fry chats with an Auschwitz survivor who was forced to play cello in the camp’s infamous orchestra, and they talk about the ugly realities of life in Auschwitz and the moral questions of listening to Wagner’s music. Fry visits the stadium in Nuremberg where Hitler staged his most notorious rallies -- with Wagner’s music often used as an accompaniment -- and while some tourists stroll up to the podium where the Führer spoke, Fry cannot bring himself to stand where Hitler once orated. And Fry meets with Eva Wagner-Pasquier, the composer’s great-granddaughter, who now helps run the Bayreuth Festival and is working towards a more honest acknowledgement of Wagner’s connections to the Third Reich; she has also authorized a production of the opera Parsifal at Bayreuth that explores the persecution of Jews in Germany.

Wagner & Me was originally produced for British television, and director Patrick McGrady gives the film the simple, straightforward look and approach of a TV documentary. But the picture’s simplicity is also one of its strong suits; this movie is at its best when it lets Fry either talk about the music or immerse himself in it as he attends rehearsals and performances of Wagner’s most celebrated works (the moment when Fry gets to touch the keys of Wagner’s piano is by itself enough to make the film worth a look). The performances featured here are certainly enough to convince anyone of the beauty and emotional power of Wagner’s operas, and Fry speaks with passion and eloquence about every aspect of Wagner’s life and career, both the noble and the despicable. (And Fry and McGrady find many entertaining details in the nuts and bolts of presenting a work as complex as the Ring Cycle.) Wagner & Me has a lot to say about Richard Wagner, but it also ends up telling us a great deal about Stephen Fry, and both men are fascinating enough to make these 90 minutes fly by; if you have any interest at all in great music and/or European history, this is well worth your time and attention.

-Mark Deming


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