Wagner & Me is a documentary about a fanboy and fandom, and about whether you can separate an artist from his art. It features the British comedian and actor Stephen Fry as he investigates his favorite musician, the 19th century German composer of the famous Ring Cycle, Richard Wagner. What you may or may not know is that history has documented Wagner as an anti-Semite, and that Fry is Jewish. Why does this matter? To some Wagner is the greatest composer of his day, if not of all-time. Yet as we learn in Wagner & Me, his works of good vs evil took on their own life under the reign of Adolf Hitler. Hitler would whistle Wagner amongst his friends and troops and the very rousing works of Wagner were often played to inspire his men.
Stephen Fry is one of the best actors in England. In his comedic career he often partnered with actor Hugh Laurie of later House, M.D. fame, and is known in the UK from his many series, such as a A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, and various Blackadder series. He is well known as a good guy, an intelligent thinker, a philanthropist, and friends with actresses Emma Thompson and Carrie Fisher. Fans in the States know him best from his movies. His first film was a bit part in Chariots of Fire and from there he went on to act in A Fish Called Wanda, Peter’s Friends, I.Q., A Civil Action, Gosford Park, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he voiced the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, and narrated Harry Potter video games. He also has a recurring role on the TV series Bones. Most recently he played Mycroft Holmes opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and later this year he stars as the Master of Laketown in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. He may be most famous to genre fans for his superb performance as a rebel hoarder of banned works opposite Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.
Richard Wagner is famous for ten major operas of the romantic period, including Tannhauser, Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Parsifal, Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, and his master work, the 18-hour Ring Cycle, consisting of Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung, the most recognizable composition being his famous Ride of the Valkyries. Whether you’re a fan of classical music or not, you would probably recognize his music, and if you’re like me you were introduced to Wagner very young–via the famous Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoon send-up of Wagner, “What’s Opera, Doc?” If you don’t remember that one, here it is:
Stephen Fry narrates and stars in Wagner & Me and reveals his very fanboy status as it relates to Wagner. He gets to play the composer’s own trademark dissonant chord on a piano once owned by Wagner. He gets to shake the hand of one of Wagner’s granddaughters. He is awestruck as he visits the stunning Neuschwanstein Castle (easily recognizable as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle) where Wagner’s patron King Ludwig II decorated the interior walls with images inspired by Wagner’s dramas. Here is where Fry is one with Wagner’s patron king–both fans of this composer in different ways. But for Ludwig’s fandom of Wagner, we would likely not know of Wagner today, as Wagner was perilously close to entering debtor’s prison up to the point of meeting the king, who was quick to fund Wagner from then on.
Fry’s V for Vendetta character seeps in a bit–that character was a rebel doing what he ought not do in the political climate of his day. Fry seems a bit haunted by whether he, being Jewish, should pursue his fandom for Wagner as he is. This is at its peak in the documentary when Fry sits on the steps of the Nuremburg stadium where Hitler’s soldiers assembled and rallied during World War II, after listening to the works of Wagner to energize the troops. Fry looks on to the platform where Hitler watched over the more than 100,000 attendees and where tourists take photos today. Fry refuses to go to the platform and remarks, “I’m afraid Hitler and Nazism have stained Wagner. For some people, that stain ruins the whole work. For others, it is just something you have to face up to.” And also when Fry looks on to the window where Hitler once famously looked on, at the Festival House at Bayreuth, Germany, built by King Ludwig for Wagner’s operas, Fry winces a bit. Yet, despite Fry’s misgivings, he has created this documentary despite Jewish friends who would not listen to Wagner, and steadfastly maintains at the documentary’s end his conclusion: Wagner’s music is a good thing, and one ultimately doesn’t need to apologize for being able to separate the music from the man.
The use by Hitler of Wagner’s work is not just a footnote of history, but nearly always accompanies discussions of Wagner’s works. Performances in the state of Israel of Wagner’s works are still a source of controversy. According to scientist Carl Sagan’s wife, Sagan, also Jewish, refused to consider any Wagner works when creating a comprehensive world album of music to accompany the Voyager space programs beyond the edge of our galaxy. She said it was as if he thought some alien might listen to the music and decode some hidden evil within his works, somehow sourced from Wagner’s own anti-Semitic comments during his life and his impact on Nazi Germany.
Fry asks interesting questions along his journey that could be adapted to any fan and artist. When an actor does something publicly reprehensible, should you boycott his works? If he makes racist remarks, is arrested for taking drugs or worse, can you separate his actions from his works? Should you? Ultimately Fry’s answer is that everyone should decide for themselves.
Wagner & Me should be required viewing for students of classical music, and lovers of Fry or Wagner, and anyone interested in learning more about either.
Here is a trailer for the documentary, Wagner & Me:
Check out the First Run Features website for current theatrical showings across the country. The documentary is also available on DVD via Amazon.com, currently with a pre-release discount. The DVD is scheduled for release April 30, 2013.