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The fanboy and the fuhrer

In Wagner & Me, Stephen Fry tries to separate the German composer from his Nazi fans

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Like many American teens of the 1970s, I met Richard Wagner at the movies, when Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the war-happy cavalry man in Apocalypse Now, plays "Ride of the Valkyries" over his helicopter radio during an assault on a Viet Cong village. "It scares the shit out of the slopes," Kilgore informs Captain Willard (Martin Sheen). "My boys love it!" The swirling strings and valiant horns are the perfect accompaniment as the helicopter formation descends and the Americans machine-gun the villagers. The sequence was fairly novel then for the way the characters consciously appropriate music as their own personal soundtrack, putting themselves in a movie. By choosing Wagner, director Francis Ford Coppola was clearly linking Kilgore to Hitler, who famously embraced the composer as a symbol of Aryan supremacy. Yet I hummed "Ride of the Valkyries" all the way home.

Such is the hook of Wagner & Me, a 2010 documentary that makes its Chicago premiere this week at Gene Siskel Film Center. British actor Stephen Fry (Gosford Park, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) sets out on an extended pilgrimage to learn about his musical idol, covering the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, and making side trips to the composer's haunts in Switzerland and Saint Petersburg. The ultimate Wagner fanboy, he trembles with excitement as he visits the glorious homes and theaters where the master once worked. At the same time, though, Fry is a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust, and as he explains at the outset, he needs to come to terms with the fact that Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite and a hero of the Nazis. The movie is a sustained attempt to separate Wagner from his music, which proves easier for Fry than separating himself from it.

One might be tempted to call Fry the biggest Wagner fan who ever lived, if that title weren't already held by Wagner himself. "I am the most German of beings," the composer once wrote. "I am the German spirit. Consider the incomparable magic of my works." He was born in 1813 in Leipzig and by age 30 had made his name with the opera Rienzi; after supporting the revolutionary movement against the crown in Dresden, he fled to Switzerland. Fry and Eva Rieger, author of Minna and Richard Wagner, travel by boat across Lake Lucerne, near Wagner's home, discussing the dramatic Swiss landscape that would figure in his operas. Over his 12 years in exile, Wagner labored on the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, incorporating drama, music, and dance; he also spent himself into debt, protesting, "Mine is a highly susceptible, intense, voracious sensuality, which must somehow or another be indulged if my mind is to accomplish the agonizing labor of calling a nonexistent world into being."

This nonexistent world was anchored in myth. "God and gods are the first creations of man's poetic force," Wagner wrote. As a dramatist he aspired to "conjur[e] up the holy spirit of poetry as it comes to us in the sagas and legends of past ages." The greatest saga of them all was the Nibelungenlied, the 13th-century epic poem about the dragon slayer Siegfried and the treachery he encounters in the court of Burgundy. Wagner combined it with Norse heroic myths to create a massive four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, linking the various tales with the device of a magic ring that grants dictatorial power over the world. "The very nature of myth was universal," Fry explains in Wagner & Me, "because it was outside time . . . almost like science fiction, but science fiction set in the past, if you like."

In 1864 Wagner was miraculously rescued from debtors' prison by young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who adored Wagner's music, placed the Munich Court Opera at his service, and gave him everything he needed to stage his works. By 1876, when Wagner was 63, the composer had persuaded Ludwig to build a festival center in the town of Bayreuth that would be wholly dedicated to Wagner's music; it opened with the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle. At the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Fry gleefully watches a rehearsal of Die Walkure in which black-clad women wear red plastic corsets with clear fins attached in back. Later he attends another Ring rehearsal at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg (where Wagner once conducted) and witnesses a surreal spectacle in which darkened dancers with long, white, fluorescent hair are lowered to the bottom of a giant, blue-lit stage.

Fry confesses that he's often fantasized about going back in time to 1850, when Wagner was in exile at Lake Lucerne, and warning him to drop his incendiary essay "Jewishness in Music," in which he expresses his physical disgust toward Jews, argues that they have no business composing music, and urges them to abandon Judaism for the sake of the German state. "You're on the brink of becoming the greatest artist of the 19th century," Fry tells Wagner, "and future generations will forget that, simply because of this nasty little essay that you're writing." Hitler embraced Wagner, whose music would be performed at the Nuremberg rallies a half century after his death. At the midpoint of Wagner & Me, Fry pays a visit to the Nazi Party rally grounds, though he refuses to stand atop the platform where Hitler once spoke (and tourists now snap photos). He fumes over the injustice to Wagner: "We look through Hitler's viewfinder at this enormous man and see one little area . . . instead of seeing the whole thing."

The metaphor of a lens is ironic, since by the time of the Third Reich, Wagner had already begun to seep into movie culture. German master Fritz Lang and his writing collaborator Thea von Harbou drew on the Ring Cycle when they wrote Siegfried's Death and Kriemhild's Revenge (both 1924), which were reportedly favorites of Hitler and Goebbels. Wagner's music has been used in hundreds of movies since the beginning of the sound era. Tristan und Isolde, with its famous unresolved chord, has turned up in everything from Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms (1932) to Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953) to John Boorman's Excalibur (1981) to Barbet Schroeder's Reversal of Fortune (1990) to Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011). In 1943 alone, Rienzi shows up as far afield as Frank Tashlin's Daffy Duck cartoon Scrap Happy Daffy and Columbia Pictures' 15-chapter serial Batman.

Even apart from his music, Wagner has shaped the movies: his brand of theatrical thunder is the inspiration for every modern superhero blockbuster, with their mythical stories, pounding music, violent action, and dazzling special effects. "Science fiction set in the past," indeed. What Wagner celebrated most was power—not just political or military power as it plays out onstage, but the power of mythology to unite people and the power of one man to realize the most grandiose artistic visions. His megalomania probably spoke to Hitler more than his anti-Semitism. Stephen Fry may not be able to climb the steps to the fuhrer's platform at Nuremberg, but Wagner would have loved the view.

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