Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Wagner Files

Samuel Finzi and Pegah Ferydoni as Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima in "Wagnerwahn" ("The Wagner Files") (2013).

Last night, Paul and I attended a private screening by Houston Grand Opera of "Wagnerwahn", which has been translated as "The Wagner Files". This was an episode in the Die Kulturakte series, and was a 90-minute biographical documentary of Richard Wagner. The reason for this screening, of course, was that HGO will soon be premiering the second of the four Ring Cycle operas, and in opera, although context is not quite everything, it certainly is important.

What I loved most about this documentary was the creativity of its presentation. It mixed interview footage of Wagner historians and even one of Wagner's descendents, Katharina Wagner, with dramatized portions in which actors Samuel Finzi and Pegah Ferydoni portrayed Richard and Cosima Wagner, respectively. It further mixed that with artwork from Wagner: Die Graphic Novel, written by Andreas Voellinger Gebundene Ausgabe and illustrated by Flavia Scuderi. This art has been partially animated, so that the faces and mouths sometimes move, or fire or floods are shown as dynamic instead of static. [Author corrected -- thanks to Lukas for the info!]

To further add to the mix, the enacted scenes made no attempt at historical accuracy in terms of dress and scenic background, so that modern-sounding telephones were utilized often (no cells, thankfully) and modern-day cars zipped by -- that is, unless sleek Audis really did exist in Wagner's time. The characters were dressed dramatically, in a style that I couldn't attribute to a particular time period, and the camera angles were even more dramatic, with long angles and shots up and down through spiral staircases. Wagner and Cosima often spend minutes at a time staring at each other intensely, and there are long moments when Wagner dresses himself in the pink silk fabric for which he had something of a fetish, gazing at himself in the mirror while smelling the roses he also loved.

So what happens when you add all this up? In my mind, you get something like the Frank Miller version (remember Sin City?) of Wagner's life -- or at least the portions of his life most impacted by his second marriage with Cosima. I thought it was fascinating.

And that relationship was indeed the focus of the documentary. Wagner carried on a long affair with Cosima, during which time she, her husband, and their children lived in Wagner's house and she took over the management of his career. Cosimi, who was herself the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, even bore Wagner a child whom she passed off as her husband's for a while. Eventually, though, the affair was outed and Wagner was forced to leave Munich, where he had been quite spoiled by the patronage of King Ludwig II. He moved to Switzerland (again), Cosima joined him there after a time, and they eventually married (by this time they had two additional children together). As the documentary portrayed it, the course of their love was never smooth, in spite of or perhaps because of their passion for one another.

Before seeing this documentary, I knew very little about Wagner's life; I essentially knew that he is regarded as a genius and an anti-Semite. This documentary made abundantly clear that he was both of these things, and that he was also quite a bit more vile than I had imagined. It seems that perhaps with the partial exception of Cosima, he treated the people around him according to how useful he thought they could be to him. The worst case, in my mind, was his blatent exploitation of Ludwig, who clearly was in love with him. Although Wagner was not gay, he didn't shy away from intimacy with other men, so in that regard he was not completely dishonest, but his letters to Ludwig play up that aspect of their relationship shamelessly -- he obviously wanted to give the impression that he felt more than he did, in order to keep the moneybags close by. I don't believe the documentary stated this, and I would want to confirm it elsewhere before believing it entirely, but Wikipedia hints that Ludwig actually considering abdicating his throne to join Wagner in Switzerland, and Wagner dissuaded him. And that makes sense, because the money might well have dried up if Ludwig had given up his throne. I certainly felt sorry for Ludwig, who was completely duped as far as I'm concerned.

The documentary also dealt with the anti-Semitism head-on; in fact, one of the historians said that Cosima's detailed diaries should be required reading for Wagner apologists, because they make it perfectly clear that the couple's shared anti-Semitic views were extreme. There was a long scene in which Wagner sat in a bathtub ranting to Cosima about the Jews while she wrote down everything he said. My impression was that phrases Wagner used were paraphrased from the diaries. Wagner basically said that the Jews couldn't speak or sing properly and were essentially vermin who were stealing "our" art forms. He said that no negotiation was possible, and extermination was the only solution.

I have to say, I felt incredibly uncomfortable during this scene, but I think that was the filmmakers' intention. Wagner's descendant, Katharina Wagner, said that she has to deal with the fact that his hateful bigotry existed and was well documented. If I felt uncomfortable, imagine what it's like to have that legacy permanently recorded in your family's history. For the documentary to shy away from this aspect of his personality would have been a mistake. I noticed that very little mention was made of Wagner's children, and I cringed at the idea of them growing up in that atmosphere. Then I wondered whether Wagner himself developed those views as an adult, or if he grew up hearing such hateful rants in his own family.

Oh, and there was also some information about his music and operas! In fact, the documentary included some footage from the same production of the Ring Cycle that HGO is putting on here in Houston. I greatly enjoyed Das Rheingold when we saw it last year; it was a very modern, science fictional production, and it looks like the rest of it will be along the same lines. In the meantime, for anyone interested in Wagner, I highly recommend the documentary if you can find it.


Lukas said...

"Wagner: The Graphic Novel" was written by Andreas Voellinger. (http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/format/format-crossmedia/wagner-graphic-novel-book) "Gebundene Ausgabe" means "Hardcover Edition". ;-)

There is also an enhanced app version of the Graphic Novel that includes an English translation: http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-wagner-files-app

Amy Sisson said...

Thank you! I can't believe I made that mistake; it's beyond embarrassing!