Actor and writer Stephen Fry explores his passion for the world’s most controversial
composer. Stephen is Jewish, and lost family in the Holocaust – can he salvage Richard
Wagner’s music from its dark associations with anti-semitism and Hitler?

An honest appraisal of the controversial composer.

Most people’s introduction to the music of Richard Wagner probably came via Bugs Bunny’s co-option of The Ride of the Valkyries ('kill the wabb-it"¦"). A few years later the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now erased those rabbit associations for good. Who has not thrilled to that music in Coppola’s war masterpiece?

So it was with a shock that a few years ago, while watching a grey Sydney Opera House production of the composer’s Ring Cycle opera, die Walküre (The Valkyrie), this reviewer discovered that in context, the famously stirring theme came and went in a flash – buried in the middle of what seemed like interminable turgidity, both musical and theatrical.

I don’t claim this to be an informed or defensible view of the opera. I do say it was a stolid production in an acoustically problematic venue that did nothing to entice this film reviewer in the direction of any further acquaintance with Wagnerian opera – though this engrossing and ultimately inspiring British documentary has prompted a rethink.

British TV personality, writer, author and polymath Stephen Fry has a considerably more informed and passionate view of the famous German’s music. That alone makes him a perfect guide for this BBC-produced feature documentary. But Fry is also Jewish, with relatives who died in the Holocaust, and the thing Wagner is most famed for other than his music is his vicious anti-Semitism and the fact his operas provided personal inspiration for Adolf Hitler.

The sell-line, then, is that this is a film in which Fry tries to reconcile his love of the composer’s music with his revulsion at his racism, though the film doesn’t quite play out that way. While Wagner’s anti-Semitism doesn’t sit comfortably with Fry – how could it? – he seems to have decided long ago that this would not interfere with his reverence for the music. Any struggle the presenter may have had as a young man, torn between twin poles of attraction and horror, appears to have largely dissipated. But while that may remove a little of the film’s potential for personal drama, it is clearly an honest appraisal – something that works in its favour.

The film opens with Fry arriving excitedly at Bayreuth, the Bavarian opera house the composer had especially built for his productions – it’s the Holy Grail for all Wagner fans – then segues into a lively potted biography. Skipping Wagner’s childhood, the first half takes up the story from when he was exiled to Switzerland due to his nationalistic German activism (this during a period of revolutionary European political turmoil). Here he plotted his future career and developed his ideas for a Gesamtkunstwerk – the total work of art that would bring the fundamental elements of opera (a word he hated) back to the people. Switzerland was also where he met his first wealthy patron and wrote a withering essay, Jewishness in Music.

Fry is quick to contextualise this by pointing out that anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, and that Wagner seemed to be motivated by intense hostility for two Jewish rivals, Felix Mendelsohn and the largely forgotten Giacomo Meyerbeer. He does this not to excuse Wagner, though many Jews may feel differently. Later he visits the parade ground at Nuremberg, where Wagner was performed before the Nazi rallies. Finally an interview with a remarkably philosophical Holocaust survivor, who played cello in the Auschwitz prisoners’ orchestra, swings the argument when she explains that for her, 'music isn’t sullied" by evil. Great music, she seems to be saying, is its own thing, in and of itself. Fry clearly agrees.

This roughly 90 minutes film was first screened in the UK in an edited, 60 minute version on BBC television, so Australian cinema-goers will want to know, does it need to be seen on the big screen or is it essentially televisual? The answer is that fortunately director Patrick McGrady has brought a cinematic sensibility to the material. On a visual level, Wagner & Me is magnificent, from its early shots of the Swiss lakes and mountains (a key inspiration for Wagner), to its carefully composed explorations of the interiors of Bayreuth and other opera houses. Fry is present throughout – not just as narrator, but frequently on-screen. He makes an immensely engaging guide – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, articulate and thoughtful.

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1 hour 29 min
In Cinemas 03 March 2011,