Wagner & Me: Film Review

Stephen Fry makes an engaging host for this thoughtful examination of Richard Wagner's music and his virulent anti-Semitism.

Patrick McGrady's documentary features British actor/writer Stephen Fry exploring the complex artistic legacy of famed composer Richard Wagner.

Combining the ultimate fanboy’s appreciation with an examination of the conflict between great art and the moral turpitude of the person who created it, Wagner & Me features British actor/writer Stephen Fry eagerly tracing the steps of the famous composer. Patrick McGrady’s documentary strains to reconcile its conflicting moods, but Fry’s gushing enthusiasm for the subject is ultimately if sometimes queasily infectious.

The film features Fry, at times shaking like a nervous schoolboy, making his first ever pilgrimage to Germany’s annual Bayreuth Festival, held in a theater designed by Wagner himself.  There he watches rehearsals of a production of the famed Ring cycle; examines the composer’s handwritten scores and plays a few notes on his very piano; and interviews the festival’s artistic director, Wagner’s great-granddaughter Eva, who registers her impatience by quickly cutting the conversation short. But not before touching Fry’s arm.

“I just touched the flesh of a Wagner,” Fry gushes, in an example of his unbridled enthusiasm.

Actually, it’s not quite unbridled, since one of the film’s main themes is Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism, made clear in an 1850 diatribe called “Jewishness in Music” that Fry not quite convincingly explains was partially motivated by Wagner’s jealousy of such successful Jewish composers of his time as Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer

Adding fuel to the moral fire is the fact that one of Wagner’s biggest fans was Adolf Hitler, who attended Bayreuth and who appropriated his music for his Nazi rallies. Fry, who is Jewish and who had relatives who died in the Holocaust, wrestles with the conflict between his love for the music and his repulsion for the man who created it, ultimately coming to the conclusion that one doesn’t necessarily impact the other.

The film, essentially a comprehensive Wagnerian travelogue, also makes stops in Switzerland, where Wagner fled as a political exile; St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, where Wagner conducted; and Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle, built by King Ludwig II as an homage to the composer. Fry also visits Nuremberg, where Hitler held his 1933 rally, and London, where he asks a Holocaust survivor who played in the prisoners’ orchestra at Auschwitz about whether it’s appropriate for him to go to Bayreuth.

While the film is not totally successful in elucidating its complex themes, Fry’s engaging personality and thoughtful commentary, as well as the generous doses of Wagner’s music on the soundtrack, make it highly entertaining. Not to mention mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the composer and his times.

Production: Wavelength Films.

Director/producer: Patrick McGrady.

Executive producers: Lucy Ward, Adam Barker, John Marshall.

Directors of photography: Jeremy Irving, Sergei Dubrovsky.

Editor: Amanda Young.

Not rated, 89 min