We open with title cards telling us that, 140 years after his death, Wagner is still one of the world’s most divisive composers, provoking either deep love or hatred from his supporters and critics. This promises an interesting film for, regardless of whether you actually like his music, Wagner’s complicated relationship with the Nazis and antisemitism asks important questions about whether it is possible to have a politically neutral view of art.
Unfortunately, it takes a while for these questions to be acknowledged, let alone addressed. The first third of the film looks at the hundreds of Wagner fan clubs which have emerged from Venice to Tokyo, from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. In Riga, where Wagner briefly lived, we see a demonstration calling on the government to remember his life there, even though he hated the place.
Members of the fan clubs articulate why they love Wagner, or rather they don’t articulate much at all. Regardless of how High Art or Low Art their subjects, most music documentaries falter because it’s easy to say that you enjoy someone’s work, but much harder to say why. So, we see a series of people telling us that Wagner is great because he’s great, just as they would if this were a documentary about REM or Black Lace.
The film really gets going, though. when it takes the issue of Wagner’s antisemitism and his relationship with the Nazis. The most interesting voice we hear belongs to Jewish opera director Barrie Kosky. Asked to direct Der Meistersinger at the Bayreuth festival, Kosky asked for six months to think about whether he could even consider doing such a thing.
Kosky’s argument is nuanced. The problem is not the fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer. He couldn’t influence who would like his work after his death. And besides, says Kosky, he’s not that “politically correct” (he really does make quotation marks with his fingers) to refuse to perform an artist merely because of his politics.
And yet, he goes on, it can be difficult to separate the politics of an artist from what he produces. Kosky, for one, is sick of Christian Germans telling him that Der Meistersinger is not antisemitic when it clearly is. While no-one is explicitly called Jewish, some characters are drawn with such obvious stereotypes that it’s clear who they are supposed to represent.
It seems that Kosky did relent and direct the opera, as we see scenes with characters wearing blue and white kippas printed with the Star of David. I find it a great shame that this is the moment when the camera moves on to someone else. For while the question “Can you still perform Wagner?” is interesting “How can you play him?” is even more fascinating. Unfortunately, the film does not really try to answer this second question.
Something similar happens earlier in the film. A Black director talks of his all Black production of a Wagner opera in Newark, New Jersey. This was despite the fact that the opera, like its author, was clearly racist. Or rather, he tells us that the performance took place, and we see some scenes of Black singers performing. But again, after the intriguing set up, we learn little of how the director and performers dealt with the obvious problems here.
Towards the end, after a little acknowledgement of The Unpleasantness (a Visitors Book is produced from the hotel where prominent guests say, and some of the names from the 1930s are a little embarrassing), we return to the hagiography. We see Conservative ministers, including Angela Merkel, visiting Bayreuth, and although we hear chants of protesting pro-refugee activists, the main impression is that the Wagner industry is still in the hands of the establishment.
Wagner, Bayreuth und der Rest der Welt has moments of greatness and insight. To its credit, it acknowledges that there is a problem out there about liking Wagner, although it seems to see this problem entirely due to the relationship with 1930s Germany. It would have been nice to hear that any racist piece of Art is problematic, however much it may be “of its time”.
And yet, ultimately, having asked important and provocative questions, the film’s default position is to shy away from any meaningful answer. Too many people are allowed to say Wagner is good because he is good, or make superficial Pop Culture references to Heavy Metal, or Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, presumably in an attempt to make the kids feel its ok to like Wagner too.
This film is ok, but if it had had the courage of its convictions it could have been much better.