In his autobiography The Fry Chronicles, British actor Stephen Fry tells us about the first time he experienced Richard Wagner's four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen. He was a Cambridge University undergraduate, and a friend took him to a Royal Opera House production in London.
"Monday Das Rheingold, Tuesday Die Walküre, Wednesday off, Thursday Siegfried, Friday off and Saturday, Götterdämmerung. A week of Valkyries and Niebelungs and Gods and Heroes and Norns and Giants… It gets into your blood… All Wagnerians know the film that descends over the eyes of those to whom they talk about their obsession, so I will say no more save to point out what is perhaps obvious, that it was a shattering experience and a life-changingly important week for me."
Although you may not recognize the name Stephen Fry, I assure you, you have all seen this veteran British character actor many times in films such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Gosford Park (2001), V for Vendetta (2005), and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). In 1997, he starred as Oscar Wilde in the biopic Wilde (with Jude Law and Vanessa Redgrave), and in 2013, he will be in multiplexes everywhere in The Hobbit.
But what you may not know, based on his look as well as his name, is that Fry is Jewish. His maternal grandparents came to England from a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia, and many of his mother's relatives died in Auschwitz.
So the decision to declare himself Richard Wagner's greatest cinematic advocate almost thirty years after attending that first London production, comes with the self-conscious knowledge that "he" will always be in the background; "he," Adolf Hitler, also a well-known and very passionate Wagnerian.
And now a bit about myself before I go on: Of course I know, just as Fry knows, that many Jewish people with broad cultural taste and deep appreciation for all forms of art, music and literature will not partake of Wagner in any form because of "him." In Israel, Wagner's music is still banned from concert stages although it is sometimes played now on the radio.
A good synopsis of all this was recently provided by The New Yorker's music critic Alex Ross, who is currently working on a book called Wagnerism: Art in the Shadow of Music. Ross concludes his column with this ironic quote from Theodore Herzl: "My only recreation [while writing The Jewish State] was listening to Wagner's music in the evening."
My own first expose to Wagner was a college course on the 19th Century which included his Tristan and Isolde. Like Fry, I was hooked. A few years later, just out of graduate school, I made one of my most expensive purchases to date: two tickets to see Tristan and Isolde at Lyric Opera. I saw my first complete Ring Cycle at the Lyric a few years after that, and my husband and I went again the next time the Lyric offered it. Then, last year, we went to the Met simulcasts at our local multiplex. One Tristan and three Rings, that's over fifty hours of performance time, but compared to Fry, I am a novice!
In Wagner & Me, Fry and director Patrick McGrady travel around Europe visiting sites such as the Villa Wesendonck in Switzerland and the Neuschwanstein Schloss in Bavaria that were critical to Wagner's long gestation process. (The Ring Cycle took approximately 25 years to complete.)
They stage their grand finale in Bayreuth, Germany, where Wagner had an opera house built to his exact specifications for the premiere of The Ring Cycle on August 13, 1876. Wagnerites still flock here every year for the annual Bayreuth Festival (now run under the demanding eyes of two of Wagner's great-granddaughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner).
Simultaneously, they plot Hitler's rise and fall, with scenes of "him" waving to adoring crowds from the balcony of the Festspielhaus Bayreuth in 1938. Fry approaches this inflammatory image with care, adroitly explaining why it does not impact his own love for Wagner's Ring Cycle. McGrady, who also directed the BBC's BAFTA-nominated documentary Stephen Fry & the Gutenberg Press, knows how to let Fry be Fry, and I sincerely believe Jews everywhere are well-served by the humanistic lessons taught by this ebullient raconteur.
Completed and distributed in Europe in 2010, Wagner and Me was recently acquired by First Run Features and will play at selected art houses all across the United States in 2013. Chicago gets a sneak peek at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with a full week of screenings from Nov 30 through Dec 6. For schedule information, visit: www.SiskelFilmCenter.org.
Stephen Fry plays Wagner's piano in Bayreuth. © Wavelength Films
PREVIEWS OF COMING ATTRACTIONS
The following week from Dec 14 through Dec 20, the Gene Siskel Film Center will show Avi Nesher's lovely film The Matchmaker, which played in 2010 at our Chicago International Film Festival and in 2011 at our Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema.
As I said in my 2010 review, "Speaking to us from Haifa circa summer 2006 (under active bombardment during the Second Lebanon War), a middle-aged writer named "Arik Burstein" tells us a story about Haifa circa 1968 (exactly one year after the Six-Day War), and therefore the coming-of-age depicted is Israel's as much as his own."
Tuval Shafir as "Arik Burstein" and Adir Miller as "Yankele Bride" in a 1968 scene from The Matchmaker. © Eyal Landesman courtesy of United King Films