Film Review: Wagner & Me

A must for opera lovers and indeed anyone wanting to learn about some of the greatest music ever composed and the controversial genius who wrote it.

The redoubtable George Bernard Shaw, who wrote The Perfect Wagnerite, has an apt fan descendant in actor/writer Stephen Fry, who is our guide into this highly entertaining and informative exploration of the great, if undeniably difficult, composer Richard Wagner.

Fry confesses to having been besotted by Wagner from a childhood listen to a recording of the opera Tannhauser, and his journey in Wagner & Me takes him to that holy of holies, the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria, where each year the master’s works are performed in the theatre he himself designed, a festival with a seven-year waiting list for tickets.

That last fact attests to Wagner’s undiminished hold on audiences, with hundreds of books and films about him, and never-ending productions of his operas being performed all around the world. To the music novice, he may seem the most daunting of prospects, especially his masterwork, The Ring Cycle, encompassing as it does four separate, epic operas which tell the legendary tale of the power struggle between men, gods and various other creatures in some 15 hours total. But Fry, with the unquenchable enthusiasm he must have had as a gob-smacked boy, makes the man, his life and his work beautifully accessible without ever once dumbing the subject down.

The film is also the most luxurious travelogue, taking us into fabled places which involve a lot of time and money in reality, like Bayreuth, of course, as well as Neuschwanstein, the castle which Wagner’s crazy benefactor, King Ludwig of Bavaria, erected as the ultimate shrine to the composer (the design of which Disney stole for Sleeping Beauty). Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre is the scene of an encounter with conductor Valery Gergiev, and we also tour the beautiful Swiss estate where Wagner sought refuge during his political exile from Germany. There are grimmer locales as well, such as Nuremberg, as Fry sits in the stadium where Hitler’s infamous 1933 rally occurred and confesses that, as a Jew whose family members died in the Holocaust, he cannot bring himself to stand where Der Fuhrer once did, a popular tourist picture-taking spot.

Fry vilifies Hitler for using and thereby perverting Wagner’s music for his own ends, but it cannot be denied that Wagner himself was virulently anti-Semitic, writing a Jew-loathing tract not unlike the hateful propaganda of the Nazis. So there is a definite organic connection which goes beyond a dictator’s mere evil, acquisitive egomania. There’s a particularly disingenuous scene in which Fry, wanting to somehow clear his own conscience, visits an Auschwitz survivor who played music in the camp and asks her if he should refrain from visiting Bayreuth. She lets him off the hook, but you know damn well that wild horses could not have prevented this self-admittedly abject Wagnerite from going. Another queasy moment occurs when he encounters Wagner’s great-granddaughter Eva, the present director of Bayreuth, who gives him a hasty interview and shakes his hand. “I just touched the flesh of a Wagner!” he enthuses. “Pathetic, I know.” (Indeed, especially considering how in cahoots the family was with the Nazis, something they are finally addressing publicly.)

These are minor cavils, however. For Fry’s wonderful elucidation of that mythically essential one chord at the heart of Wagner’s masterwork Tristan and Isolde alone, this doc is eminently worth seeing.