"Just because he may have been a nasty little man and a nasty anti-Semite doesn't mean that his music is not as supreme as it is."
That assessment comes from a Richard Wagner scholar in the
More than a half-century after his death, Wagner's
It takes a certain amount of mental gymnastics to take all of that into account and still be able to step back and appreciate the grandeur of Wagner's work. Filmmaker Patrick McGrady explores this dilemma from the point of view of British actor
As a passionate, almost giddy fan of Wagner's music who, as it happens, lost family in the Holocaust as well, Fry is ideally suited to tackle the complicated emotions that serious music lovers grapple with when it comes to Wagner.
Certainly this is a conundrum familiar to local classical music audiences; Daniel Barenboim, who served as conductor for the
(Barenboim was at the center of a controversy a decade ago when he defied
Outside music circles, Fry is by far the bigger celebrity (American audiences will see him next in the upcoming film adaptation of
"In the back seat of the crew vehicle Stephen was plugged into his
"As the journey continued the singing was sporadic, but as a fellow opera lover I was interested in Stephen's particular passion for Wagner. I got talking to him about it. Having worked with him on other projects I was also aware of his Jewish heritage. So this passion for Wagner (plus) his background and the complications it triggered, that intrigued me."
Portions of the film were shot at the Bayreuth Festival, the annual event in
I asked McGrady if he had any preconceptions about the composer that were challenged over the course of making the film. "I suppose I heard and experienced the music differently. We tend to characterize the music as big, loud and shocking all that noise," he said. "But it is also very tender and nuanced and much more varied than that.
"And Wagner as a man, well, he is quite a complex character: viciously anti-Semitic, jealous of the success and wealth of others and convinced of his own genius. I kind of knew this. I suppose the challenge for me was growing to know and appreciate the music more, alongside an increasing dislike for its originator."
Fry gives voice to this dilemma during a visit to the famous parade grounds in Nuremberg, where stormtroopers once marched in Nazi rallies (and where today rollerbladers can be seen quietly gliding by McGrady's camera).
"Imagine a great beautiful silk tapestry of infinite color and complexity that has been stained indelibly," Fry says. "It's still a beautiful tapestry of miraculous workmanship and gorgeous color and silken texture. But that stain is real, and I'm afraid Hitler and
McGrady said that moment (in which Fry is visibly shaken) was not scripted or prepared in advance, though it seems obvious that Fry knew it would be a pivotal moment of personal reckoning.
"Just a few yards from where we filmed stood the podium from which Hitler would harangue the assembled masses," said McGrady. "In the time we were there, scores of visitors climbed to this famous vantage point to take in the view. Stephen wondered if I wanted him to go there, too. I said it was up to him. He couldn't bring himself to do it. Minutes before we left, an almighty thunderstorm broke out, drenching us all in the minute or two it took us to dash across the parade ground to our vehicle.
"A strangely cathartic ending to our visit."
"Wagner & Me" runs at the Siskel Film Center through Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Theater on screen
A modern-dress version to Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" from London's National Theatre will be filmed and broadcast live to the
Let me out
A doctor living in East Germany in 1980 attempts to emigrate to the West and is soon punished for her disloyalty in the 2012 German film
A restored print of the 1961 feature film "The Connection" comes to Doc Films this weekend. Based on a play of the same name, the story follows a young filmmaker's attempts to make a movie about