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This beautifully shot documentary offers tempting glimpses of Bayreuth
and the goings on there. But those glimpses really just scratch the
surface. Probed at greater length if not depth are the mixed feelings
of Stephen Fry about the place and about Wagner, the man who built it.
His misgivings are very well founded, since the place and the composer were closely associated with Hitler and still are. But, though Fry is a smart, genuine, and entertaining man, in this film he really doesn't convey his feelings in a way that makes for compelling viewing. Too much of the film is Fry in awe of the place--the architecture, a conductor's chair, a door knob--while worrying about the Nazi taint.
Parts are well done, especially an interview with an Auschwitz survivor who doesn't get why Fry is so enthralled with the place. But an interview with Wagner's great granddaughter Eva, who co-directs the Bayreuth Festival with her half-sister, is just odd. She doesn't respond well to any of Fry's questions and eventually walks off. Are we to conclude that she's aware of the Nazi taint and highly embarrassed? It's hard to tell.
There's much to be curious about regarding the history of the Festival and its operation, but that's not the topic of this film. Even for someone curious about Stephen Fry's ambivalence to the experience filmed here, what's offered is regrettably superficial.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Actor, author and raconteur Stephen Fry loves the music of Richard Wagner. But he is also a Jew and lost many relatives at Auschwitz. So he is feeling a little conflicted over his love of the glorious music that was written by an anti-Semite and hijacked by the Nazis. Wagner's music has become synonymous with their evil legacy, although most people today associate it with that wonderful sequence from Coppola's epic war film Apocalypse Now when the helicopters fly in to napalm a village into oblivion. Fry makes a journey to the town of Bayreuth in Bavaria, to examine Wagner's musical legacy and reconcile his own feelings about the man and his music. He talks to many historians and authorities to gain further perspective. We learn about Wagner's extended exile in Switzerland, and how his life was crippled by debt before he found a supportive patron in King Ludwig. There is also a poignant interview with a Holocaust survivor who played cello in one of the Nazi death camps. But the greatest joys for Fry come when he listens to musicians rehearse for the annual music festival and a performance of Wagner's epic opera The Ring Cycle held in a purpose built theatre. This is a very personal and emotional film for Fry, as he tries to put his passion for the music of the controversial composer into context. Fry is an erudite, entertaining and engaging guide as he takes us to places of interest and importance, including Bayreuth and Nuremberg, which is famous for Hitler's Nazi rallies. Although Wagner And Me was originally produced for BBC, documentary director Patrick McGrady brings a superb cinematic sensibility to the material. The film has been beautifully shot on location in Germany, Russia and Switzerland, by Jeremy Irving, who uses digital film to capture some superb, crisp images.
Beloved Brit Stephen Fry first fell in love with the music of Wagner
when he was 14 and so began a lifetime's passion for the music. In the
present Fry visits Bayreuth where every year, at the concert hall
Wagner himself built, a festival of his works is held and where despite
his love of all things Wagner, Fry has never visited.
Fry delves into the life of Wagner, the preparations for the festival and of course Wagner's music. In doing so however there one has to discuss how Wagner was hugely anti-Semitic and how his music was heralded by Hitler and the Nazi's to the point where for some Wagner is tainted beyond acceptance. Hitler's love for Wagner led him to attending the very music hall that Fry is to attend. Fry, with his Jewish background also takes us to Nuremberg, home of the infamous Nazi parades and gatherings that took on a Wagnerian like epic-ness.
Yet despite his difficultly with getting past this connection with composer of great music and the horrors of Nazi rule, Fry remembers the joy of the music itself and exploring the realms of Wagner leads him to describe himself as a kid in a sweetshop.
As a person with little knowledge of Wagner I wondered how I would fair with this, but Fry is a perfect host. Yet the film struggles in places; the life of Wagner doesn't seem to be fully explored and we don't really get to know much except basic facts about the man. Also the use of music throughout the film disappoints as there are only snippets of various pieces that we don't get to really appreciate; in one instance a recreation of Traume in the same room it was first performed is suddenly shattered by Fry's booming voice-over. It's seems a shame that a film about such a great musician spends such little time presenting his music, unlike films such as In Search Of Beethoven that at least gave us more of the man's music.
Of course this is not just about Wagner, nor is it about Wagner and the connection with Hitler and Antisemitism. It's about the joy Fry holds for the music. It is wonderful to see the joy he gets, entering the theatre for the first time or playing a note on Wagner's piano. But it's difficult to share the enthusiasm to his level, if you are unfamiliar with Wagner's works, even if you can still enjoy to a certain extent. The connection between the Nazis' and Wagner also presents an uneasy premise, one that Fry himself acknowledges and that being, do you put that connection aside and enjoy or do you forever connect the man with one of the darkest moments in human history? Enjoyable as it is, more time could have been spent exploring Wagner's life and presenting his music, yet as an extended version of a TV program, this works well enough as an interesting introduction to one of music's great figures.
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