In an expanded version of his 2010 BBC special “Stephen Fry on Wagner,” the popular British actor-writer-raconteur conducts his audience through the joys, doubts, worries and wonders of his first pilgrimage to the shrines of his musical idol. Quivering with an excitement he does little to disguise, Fry constantly addresses his audience, anxious to convince them — and himself — that Wagner’s genius overrides his avowed anti-Semitism and the fascistic ends to which his music was put. Even those impervious to Wagner’s music will find it difficult to resist Fry’s charm when the docu bows Dec. 7.
Helmer Patrick McGrady follows in Fry’s footsteps across Europe, first to Switzerland, where Wagner fled as a young political firebrand. There, perched on a bench, Fry earnestly addresses the camera, speaking in front of the mountains that came to figure so prominently in Wagner’s later work. In Russia, he eavesdrops on rehearsals at the Mariinsky Theater (formerly the Kirov), where Wagner reigned as conductor and where artistic director Valery Giergiev (mainstay of many a ballet documentary) now oversees a striking new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.
At Wagner’s former home, Fry listens to pianist Stefan Mickisch play the revolutionary “Tristan chord” on Wagner’s own piano. Fry horns in and daringly strikes the last, unfortunately false, note.
But, like a kid in a candy store, Fry mainly prowls around the Bayreuth Festival Theater, the vast sanctum sanctorum financed by Leopold II of Bavaria, which Wagner built solely for the performance of his operas. Fry reverently touches costumes, examines Wagner’s own handwritten scores, and closes his eyes in ecstasy as the strains of “Siegfried” float over the rehearsal hall. His constant apologizing for his childish enthusiasm would quickly cease to be amusing were he not incapable of acting differently.
One consideration, however, sounds a sobering note. Fry, himself a Jew with many victims of the Holocaust in his family, wrestles mightily to accept what he calls the stain of Wagner’s anti-Semitism on the brilliant tapestry of his work, including the composer’s infamous “Jewishness in Music” essay and his posthumous appropriation by Hitler and the Nazis. In London, he visits white-haired cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who, as a girl, was spared the gas chamber to play in Auschwitz’s inmate orchestra.
At Bayreuth, Fry stands before the window behind which Hitler famously posed, and struggles to regain his serenity. In Nuremberg, where Hitler tapped Wagner’s music as a warm-up to his inflammatory speeches, Fry confesses his disturbing conclusion that Wagner’s belief in Germanic myth and its ready translation into reality mirrored Hitler’s own.
But for Fry, the music’s complexity, ambiguity, innovation and humanity far surpass Wagner’s personal limitations. He may not convince his viewers of the rightness of his conclusions, but he certainly makes a fervent case for the triumph of art over biography.