This film review of “Wagner and Me” appeared in the Australian Jewish News print edition on March 10, 2011
The new documentary “Wagner and Me” is a deceptively simple feature length film. Simply put, if you like (a) British Jewish actor and entertainer Stephen Fry, (b) the music of Richard Wagner, and (c) watching documentaries about musicians, this is a “must see” film. If you do not fall into at least one of these categories, this is one to skip.
Stephen Fry is one of those modern British media personalities (think David Attenborough, Simon Schama) who seems to be just about everywhere at the moment: at least two films each year plus untold amounts of TV, including more than 100 episodes of “QI”, plus four novels, two autobiographies, his travelling America documentary series (recently screened here) – and, possibly most significantly, he has been the reader of all seven Harry Potter novels for the British audio book versions.
The BBC co-production of “Wagner and Me” was made both as a television documentary (there is an hour-long version which premiered on the BBC in 2010 and is likely to come to Australian TV eventually) and for theatrical release in this 89-minute version. This is Fry’s second foray into quality feature documentaries: his 2008 “Stephen Fry & the Gutenberg Press” won a “BAFTA”.
In the course of the documentary, Fry visits the 2009 Bayreuth festival of Wagner’s music where he meets the composer’s great grand-daughter; Switzerland, the location of the “Ring Cycle”; St. Petersburg, interviewing conductor Valery Gergiev and visiting the Mariinsky Theatre; and Nuremberg – location of the famous Hitler rallies. Finally he goes to London to interview a Holocaust survivor who actually played in the Auschwitz orchestra, where – we also discover – a number of Fry’s relatives perished.
The German composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, of course, is a musician fraught with controversy, both during his lifetime (he died in 1883) and ever since. He was a strong German nationalist, whose writings included explicit antisemitic themes and attacks on the likes of Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, and he was acknowledged to be a major influence on the philosophy of Adolf Hitler, who adored his music. For Jews Wagner is problematic, and will always be so: the few performances of his music in Israel have all been the subject of extensive controversy and major protests.
As an explicitly Jewish – and gay – entertainer, Stephen Fry “knows a thing or two” about being a member of minority groups. But Fry also loves Wagner’s music, and it is this adoration of the music that gives this film some tension. But despite Fry’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject, he only touches on some of the “big” issues of Wagner; I was left wanting much more depth, more analysis and more insight into how we Jews can truly bridge the conflicts between our love of music and our abhorrence of a musician’s politics. Those looking for an historical documentary about Wagner and the Jews will be disappointed, but those who secretly (or guiltily) enjoy Wagner’s music will find in Stephen Fry a soul-mate.