Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Case for Wagnerianism

For a change, it was off to see a documentary this week. I'm a fan of Stephen Fry, and he in turn is a fan of Richard Wagner, legendary composer. Unfortunately, part of that legend is that Wagner was wildly anti semitic, and another part of that legend is linked to one of his fellow Germans, Mr Adolph Hitler, who adored Wagner's work and, indeed, could be said to have been inspired by it. As a man of Jewish stock, Fry's documentary, Wagner and Me, poses the question: is it right for Fry to like Wagner?

And Fry is really passionate about the man's work. We get the potted biopic history, of course, but Fry spends more of his time waxing lyrical about the power of the man's musical creations and the innovations he introduced, like having a conductor with his back to the audience. We ge treated to performances of some of Wagner's works in the places in which they were first played or where they were meant to be, with Fry occasionally inviting other people to share their own views.

The most interesting come from a Russian conductor staging one of the Ring operas and from a survivor of the holocaust, a woman (then a girl) spared because she could play the cello. The first dismisses the link between the Nazis and Wagner, saying the work supercedes what it was used for; but while the second has the same kind of attitude to the music, she appears decidedly less impressed with Fry's determination to see Wagner performed at the composer's musical "home" in Bayreuth for performances that have waiting lists of seven years.

For me, this was where the documentary kind of let itself down. Sure, it was about Fry's journey, but there was a hugely missed opportunity for not pursuing this train of thought with the cellist. If the music itself transcends politics, can the places it is performed even if those places are, again, strongly linked with Hitler? Unfortunately, we don't get down to the nitty gritty of this, though it is lots of fun to see how much Fry enjoys himself, even if occasionally it did leave me a trifle bored.

Verdict: A great idea for a movie, Wagner and Me explores whether it is right to appreciate the same thing that inspired Hitler. The answer was, I suppose, almost always going to be "yes", but it's a shame that there is less discussion of the issues involved in favour of lots of shots of Fry enjoying himself and the music enormously. 6.5 Valkyries out of 10.


Not Kate said...

I felt the same. It was mainly a doco of Stephen Fry gushing, on location. Not a lot of hard-core background/research. It didn't really have the production quality I'd expect of a feature length doco either. It was like something you'd see on a weekly Discovery show, really.

Interesting, in that I knew pretty much nothing about him before-hand and I always find Fry charming..... but not the best made doco I've ever seen.

Not Kate said...

I also agree that the bit about the cellist was by far the most moving. She brought up wonderful points.

I also liked the point that one of the people made, that an opera has to have a battle between pure evil and good... it needs the tension and conflict. But once someone uses that in real life, it is dangerous. The nazis used it to paint themselves as heroes and the jews as villains. I liked that point. What is acceptable in fiction is not acceptable in real life in that case.

Andrew said...

cf the Discovery channel thing, I saw somewhere (actually, I think it might've been the official website) that it was originally a one-hour BBC show, which was expanded for a theatrical release. Might explain some of the production quality, and maybe the boring bits.

missrabbitty said...

Hitler was Austrian...the Germans are very strict at pointing out this difference.

Off-Black said...

As are (thankfully) a minority of Austrians :)

Fair enough that the Germans want to make clear that he wasn't in fact German, but that doesn't change the fact that the Germany of the time enabled him, and he did what he did in its name. Whether Hitler was German or Austrian is quibbling over semantics in the bigger scheme of things IMO.

missrabbitty said...

you tell the germans that!...but seriously, it may be quibbling IYO, but they actually take it a bit more seriously than that. yes they allowed it to happen but he did good for them. he got them out of a serious depression and from huge unemployment into there being not enough workers to fill the jobs he had created. and they were genuine jobs...not just building concentration camps. he may have had a greater plan but he made them the strongest nation they could be. remember they were crucified by the treaty of versailles (and one may argue rightly) but it was the people who were paying for it...and it was not their fault.

hindsight is always 20/20.