Viewing Ralf Pleger’s documentary, which spends most of its time separating the legendary man from the myth, can’t help but evoke mixed emotions in either Wagner neophytes or veterans of the Bayreuth Festival.
On the positive side: rapt admiration for the music and timeless dramas along with the wandering composer’s grit and determination to succeed—at any cost. On the darker side: total revulsion for Wagner’s ugly views of race (so helpful to Hitler down the road), shameless betrayal of friends and supporters (from cuckolding Hans von Bülow’s wife—famously Liszt’s daughter, Cosima—to taking advantage of a very young, impressionable King Ludwig of Bavaria, toying with his flaming sexuality while systemically emptying the royal coffers) and overbearing megalomania. (The Master’s apparent penchant for wearing pink silks and satins seems curiously tame through the lens of 21st century morals.)
Yet the question has to be asked: Would Wagner’s art have been as moving and profound if he’d managed to live his life with less disdain for so many of those around him?
As with The Tchaikovsky Files, Pleger artfully combines the music, actors, historical photos, informed commentary (although surprised to hear from one of those that there is “real evidence” Beethoven frequented prostitutes to fill the lack of women in his life; to other observers, his obsession with the life of his nephew may well have satisfied several needs—cross-reference below), animated sequences, and stellar camera work that flits seamlessly between Wagner’s era and the present day.
Samuel Finzi turns in a first-rate impersonation of the troubled genius whether gamely sporting the skin-soothing garments and boa or courageously spitting out Wagner’s anti-Semitic vitriol. As Cosima, Pegah Ferydoni exudes the sensuousness that stoked her lover, then husband’s unquenchable libido; at one with the eroticism of both the operas and the principals, the pair of shared-cigar scenes leave nothing to the imagination as to what is really behind the shape, heat and smoke—marvellously and so metaphorically—as the film comes to its conclusion. In the second “lighting,” Cosima’s “not for me” reply to the proffered tube of tobacco speaks volumes about their dwindling relationship.
The struggle between the rational and emotional is deftly employed and developed by Pleger and his talented colleagues (the editing is superb; the frequent overhead camera and cinematic excursions to the mountains add much to the sweeping, deliberately restless narrative) in a truly operatic manner that would leave even the demanding composer little to complain about. JWR