If they recognize his name, most Americans will think of Stephen Fry as the brilliant comic actor who has frequently paired with Hugh Laurie (of “House” fame), or the Anglo-Jewish polymath whose BBC excursions have covered everything from the mysteries of the English language to the peculiarities of American society. He’s a novelist and a stage actor of note. That Fry is Jewish and also a great lover of the music of Richard Wagner seems a contradiction; and it is the subject of a new film, “Wagner & Me,” which opens on Dec. 7.
Fry has a lot at stake here. He lost relatives in the Shoah and he knows full well that Hitler was a worshipful pilgrim at the annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth, a valued guest of the next generation of Wagners and a their gang of spouses that included the infamous racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Yet Fry admits, “Music released forces within me and no music has done it like Wagner’s.”
I suspect that every Jew with even a passing interest in Western culture has a few of them — anti-Semitic artists for whom they will engage in special pleading. Sometimes the artist will offer a late apology like Ezra Pound’s confession to Allen Ginsburg that he had “taken a vow of silence in atonement for my suburban sin of anti-Semitism.” You may buy that or not; it probably depends on whether Pound is one of “your” anti-Semites.
It’s almost impossible to sidestep this dilemma. Jew-hatred is so widespread in the arts between the 18th century and the Shoah that is much easier to enumerate non-Jewish writers, composers, painters and such who didn’t hate Jews than those that did. Keeping such a score sheet becomes a habit that most Jews have, and one begins to create a list of pet hates and likes.
There is a difference between an artist whose casual anti-Semitic remarks are the product of her time and milieu, and one motivated by deeply felt bigotry, but whose work in no way reflects an ostensible dislike of Jews. It is very possible that when he wrote “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare had never even met a Jew. But what can you do with art that is shot through with loathsome ideas, art in which the hatred is a core value?
Therein lies the problem with “Wagner & Me.” Fry and director Patrick McGrady have chosen a notoriously difficult case to make. Wagner is the poster child for artists with offensive ideas and, although Fry vehemently denies it throughout the film, it is hard not to see that Wagner’s racial ideas are an integral part of his overall vision, the very soul of his world-view.
The film begins with Fry making his way around the grounds most hallowed in Wagnerian circles, the “Green Hill” and other precincts of Bayreuth. Fry is like a giggly schoolboy in such surroundings, playful and even a little silly. “This is,” he says, “what I’ve always dreamed of doing.” He delightedly goes through the workshops, the backstage areas, watching rehearsals and technical preparations while telling us the childhood roots of his fascination with Wagner’s music. Eventually, he bleakly admits that his passion for Wagner “was shared by … him,” and McGrady cuts to a photo of Hitler in evening dress at Bayreuth.
For virtually the rest of the film’s 88 minutes, Fry is simultaneously plagued by and dismissive of the connection between Wagner and the Nazis. He interviews several music historians and Wagner scholars who reiterate what we already know, that Wagner was a committed anti-Semite, the author of the infamous “Judaism in Music” in which he denounced Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer for their Jewish “blood” which made them incapable of composing truly great music.
Wagner’s attack on Mendelssohn, whose wealthy banker father Abraham had converted to Lutheranism and had his children baptized, presaged a new kind of anti-Semitic discourse, racial rather than religious in nature. If a Jew couldn’t change his “nature” by converting to Christianity, then there could be no place for him in a Christian society; it is one of the central tenets of Nazi ideology, gratefully derived in small part from Wagner’s writings. Mendelssohn was one of the first composers whose music the Nazis banned.
Fry’s reply is feeble: “Just because he’s a nasty little anti-Semite doesn’t mean his music isn’t as supreme as it is.”
When Fry takes his show on the road to Nuremburg, the connection becomes impossible to ignore. As Joachim Kohler, author of “Wagner’s Hitler,” drily notes, the third act gathering of the guilds in “Die Meistersinger von Nuremburg” became a model for the Nazis’ rallies in that medieval city. Even Fry admits, “I am deeply uncomfortable in Nuremburg talking about Wagner,” and he won’t join the tourists who mount the specially designed podium used by Hitler in the wreckage that remains of Albert Speer’s stadium.
Fry’s most significant toss of the dice is to ascribe the Nazi connection to Wagner’s children. Richard Wagner died in 1883, six years before Hitler’s birth. Wagner was long dead when Houston Stewart Chamberlain married Eva von Bűlow, the composer’s daughter. And Winifred Wagner’s adoration of Der Fűhrer is no secret. As a line of argument, this might have been worth pursuing further, but that would have required a very different film, hosted by someone taking a rather more serious tone.
“Wagner & Me” reaches its nadir, though, when Fry visits retired cellist Anita Lasker-Walfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz. Essentially, he goes to ask her for absolution. She is charming and witty, has some trenchant remarks on her experience in the “orchestra” at the death camp, but won’t give him what he so eagerly seeks. Instead, she tells him, “Everybody has to come to terms with themselves. I’m not going to give you any advice.”
What seems to me to be missing from all the back-and-forth over Wagner’s anti-Semitism, including all the discussions in the film, is the admission that the “blood and soil” mysticism at the heart of Nazi ideology, the obsession with a purely Aryan greater Germany, is also at the heart of Wagner’s thought and work. His defenders argue that none of the operas contain overt anti-Semitism. They dismiss claims that Wagner’s portrayal of Beckmesser, the comic villain of “Meistersinger,” is a proto-Jewish figure. But it is impossible to reinvent the Ring cycle as anything but what it is.
In his final statement in “Wagner & Me,” Fry passionately declaims, “I still believe his work is important and on the side of the angels. It is good.”
I, on the other hand, am reminded of Mark Twain’s remark that “Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.”
“Wagner & Me” opens Friday, Dec. 7 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.