20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 5 May 2011
Tony Palmer's film is an unflinching investigation into what is probably the most famous feuding family in all music - the Wagners. The EMI impressario, Walter Legge, once remarked to Wieland Wagner that dining at his table with the family circle was like an act of one of his grandfather's operas in that whenever food and drink were proffered, then treachery followed! This is abundantly evident as the various family factions denounce each other on camera for the man who made the epic Wagner film starring Richard Burton. No issue is sidestepped, least of all the controversial link with Hitler and the Nazis and new evidence is brought to light examining the history of the Hitler association. This is a fascinating documentary and an outstanding example of the unbiased honesty of Tony Palmer's film-making. Essential viewing.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2013
This family-history of 'all the Wagners' is pretty gruesome, whichever way you look at it. Tony Palmer has researched the background extremely well, there is some fascinating archive-film, the story is gripping, yet Wagner's wonderful music is almost overlooked in this saga of woeful political exploitation and feuding descendants.
This documentary plays up these latter aspects of the story -sometimes blurring the facts. This is an effective documentary to watch, but Palmer's 'historical method' is questionable. And the documentary's principal themes sometimes distort the historical facts.
Tony Palmer concentrates on Wagner's miserable (but sporadic) anti-semitism, at the expense of almost all his other ideas. Palmer's central thesis is that Wagner can take much of the blame for Nazi anti-semitism. He even gives room to Robert Gutman's grotesque opinion that the composer's last opera 'Parsifal', is secretly "about racism". Wagner himself stated clearly that the opera's theme was the need for compassion.
Tony Palmer appears to support Gutman's outre thesis. He uses the Temple music from 'Parsifal' over propaganda-footage of theatrical Nazi rituals, a misleading and inflamatory conjunction which has nothing to do with Wagner the composer. This sort of thing isn't unusual -the current media climate is sometimes so loaded you might easily feel that watching a Wagner opera could turn you into a Nazi.
The proposition of this documentary, that Wagner has some sort of 'responsibility' for the crimes of Hitler and Nazism is unjustifiable. There is no evidence that Adolf Hitler ever mentioned Richard Wagner's anti-semitic attitudes -possibly because, unlike Hitler, Wagner actually recommended the positive assimilation of Jews. Instead of making clear that the 'Nazi link' actually has to do with his wayward descendants, Palmer attempts to link Nazism to Wagner himself and his operas, which is unrealistic, and unjust.
Much more justifiable is the material here on the alarming racism of the barmy 'Bayreuth Circle' around his widow Cosima, long after Wagner's death, and the pernicious anti-semitism propagated by Cosima's English son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain in his bestseller, 'The Foundations of the 19th Century'. Cosima Wagner and her loopy acolytes, particularly Chamberlain, have indeed a lot to answer for -but their poisonous racism must not be confused with Richard Wagner's own opinions and prejudices, as it is here.
At the centre of this documentary is the 20-year mutual fan-club between Cosima's English-born daughter-in-law Winifred, and Hitler. Winifred Wagner was infatuated with Hitler and Hitler was infatuated with Wagner's music and flattered to be 'at home' in the Wagner house. As an act of devotion, Winifred put the Bayreuth Festival at Hitler's service.
This documentary mischievously inflates silly gossip that Hitler actually contemplated marriage to Winifred. This is a theory without any real evidence to support it, as Palmer surely knows ? And Palmer conveniently omits Winifred's serious liaison with stage-director Heinz Tietjen.
Hitler was profoundly stirred by the music of Wagner, true. But the erroneous race-theories of Houston Stewart Chamberlain (an Englishman !), and others such as Guido von List were a much bigger influence on Hitler's political outlook than ANY of Richard Wagner's own expressed views, about anything.
Wagner's descendants (some of them outstandingly foolish) together with assorted axe-grinders like Chamberlain, used the composer's memory, and exploited his music. The very necessary distinction between the operas Richard Wagner created, and the dubious uses and distortions to which they were later subjected, is blurred by this documentary. It reads history backwards. Wagner was dead years before Hitler was born, and he cannot be blamed for the nefarious ways his later family went. It is they themselves who should be held responsible.
That the current Wagners are finding it extremely hard to live down the taint of their recent Nazi forebears is very understandable, and there is some undisguised dynastic loathing in the interviews ("she was a monster!" etc.) This is painful but nonetheless gripping. The Wagners today appear to relish their celebrated name, they are self-confident, sometimes strident performers, and director Tony Palmer has the gift of enabling his interviewees to forget the camera.
Also interviewed is the soprano Anja Silja who had a tempestuous relationship with Wieland Wagner. She brings some gentleness to this fraught scene, but doesn't mince her words. Silja states that Wieland was so burdened that "he did not want to live" -the most sensitive remark we hear in a documentary often filled with resentments. Wieland, the composer's eldest grandson (who initiated 'New Bayreuth' after the war) seems to have been the most creative, complicated (and interesting) member of a compromised and extremely tense family.
Some material in the documentary is grotesquely funny, as when an exploding Wolfgang Wagner banishes son Gottfried from the Festival with the ultimate punishment, 'hausverbot' ! ("I AM NOT GIVING HIM ANY TICKETS !!!!") There is hilarious news-footage of Wolfgang's amazing daughter Katharina -who appears to have stepped out of 'La Dolce Vita'- now in charge at the Bayreuth Festival with her half-sister, Eva.
I think for the moment I'll go back to the wonderful music, and to the ideal opera house of the imagination. And leave Wagner's contentious descendants, and the crowd of incessant media pundits to do their worst. This riveting but flawed documentary will certainly be of great interest to all Wagnerites.