"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 documentary "Wagner & Me" (at the Siskel Film Center through Thursday) and it gets to the heart of the debate about this 19th century German composer: Can you separate the man from the music? Should you?
More than a half-century after his death, Wagner's operas — the imagery, the pageantry, the music itself — were co-opted by Adolf Hitler, and in the process became symbolic of fascism, the Third Reich and the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
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 Stephen Fry, who has long had a reputation as man willing to intellectually engage with tricky or complex subject matter. (See his YouTube clip on "The Joys of Swearing"; he has a plenty of droll fun with the topic, but he is also deadly serious.)
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 Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 15 years until 2006, is perhaps one of today's most prominent Jewish maestros to champion Wagner.
(Barenboim was at the center of a controversy a decade ago when he defied Israel's unofficial Wagner ban during a concert. The following is from a Guardian account of the event, which began when the conductor asked if the audience wanted to hear some Wagner: "An emotional 30-minute debate among the audience followed, with some shouting 'fascist' and 'concentration camp music,' and dozens walked out, banging doors as the music began. But most stayed and Barenboim, 58, played a piece from Tristan and Isolde. He was reported to have been close to tears after receiving a standing ovation.")
Outside music circles, Fry is by far the bigger celebrity (American audiences will see him next in the upcoming film adaptation of "The Hobbit") and therefore perhaps better positioned to serve as an everyman's guide into Wagnerphilia. The idea for the film (which feels very much like a TV documentary, with Fry as its an avuncular host) sprang from an earlier collaboration between director McGrady and his star. Working together on an unrelated project for the BBC, they found themselves "on a twisting road which ran along the sides of the River Rhine," said McGrady by email from the UK (where he is based).
"In the back seat of the crew vehicle Stephen was plugged into his iPod and a mysterious sound filled the van: 'Rhinegold! Rhinegold!' (Fry) was singing — kind of — along to the music of his favourite composer, the legendary, controversial, Richard Wagner. And what better choice for this impromptu burst of karaoke than Wagner's opera, 'Rhinegold,' which kicks off with a scene played out in exactly the landscape we were driving through?
"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 Germany devoted to all things Wagner, and according to McGrady, it took 18 months of negotiations before the festival's organizers agreed to allow access, with Wagner's great-granddaughter Eva "keeping an eagle eye on proceedings in the corner."
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 Nazism have stained Wagner. For some people that stain ruins the whole work; for others it is just something you have to face up to."
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 Music Box Theatre at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The plot, as winningly summed up in the Independent's review: "A profligate philanthropist goes bust, loses all his fawning fair-weather friends and bolts to the opposite extreme, becoming an even more fanatical misanthrope who rages at mankind in his self-imposed exile." Talk about timely. For info go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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 "Barbara." Removed from her high-ranking post in Berlin, she is sent to a small hospital in the country where she is harassed by the Stasi and must juggle attentions from a good-looking colleague who may or may not work for the secret police. "The weird oppression and seediness of the times is elegantly captured," says The Guardian in its review. 7 p.m. Friday at Northwestern University's Block Cinema. Go to blockmuseum.northwestern.edu/view/cinema.
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 heroin-addicted jazz musicians waiting in a grungy loft for the arrival of their drug dealer. It screens at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Saturday. Go to docfilms.uchicago.edu.