you separate an artist’s work from their offensive ideology? Hollywood asks Middle America to do exactly
that nearly every weekend. Granted, the
case of Richard Wagner is of a much higher magnitude. After all, we know whose favorite composer he
was. Stephen Fry is also an ardent
admirer, who tries to reconcile his beloved music with the man’s problematic
legacy in Patrick McGrady’s Wagner &
opens this Friday in New York.
is clearly a civilized man of the arts, who actually lost family members in the
Holocaust. He also loves Wagner’s
music. Love might be an
understatement. Touring the celebrated Bayreuth
concert hall built to the composer’s specifications as it prepares for its
annual Wagner festival, Fry is absolutely giddy. All his sophistication deserts him. It is a total fanboy geek out.
Fry might cringe at some of this footage in years to come, but on the other
hand, cynicism is overrated. Fry conveys
his passion for the music and God bless him for it. To his credit though, he does not ignore the
dark side of Wagner. While he does not
delve too deeply into the composer’s documented anti-Semitic sentiments, he
fully explores the way Hitler and the National Socialists used the long
deceased Wagner to legitimize their reign of insanity. W&M
is particularly eye-opening when addressing the support Wagner’s heirs lent
to Hitler at a very early stage in his career.
Fry also visits a violinist who survived the concentration camps to get
her considered judgment on Wagner, which is indeed quite reasonable and
will always be a tricky figure to come to terms with. On a basic level, an artist like Wagner or a
veteran of film and television like Fry cannot help it if some unsavory
characters become fans of their work.
Yet, many will fairly argue there were chauvinistically nationalistic
themes in Wagner’s operas that were all too compatible with National
Socialism. Fry somewhat tries to
rehabilitate his idol (while wisely refraining from the “he was a big fan of Mendelssohn
and some of his best friends were Jewish” defense the Wagner establishment has
floated), but he never closes the deal.
In fact, viewers might walk away from W&M more critical of Wagner the man
than when they walked in. That is a
testament to Fry’s honesty if not necessarily his persuasiveness. Interesting but not essential, Wagner & Me opens this Friday (12/7)
in New York at the Quad Cinema.
Labels: Documentary, Richard Wagner, Stephen Fry