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Stanley Kauffmann On Films: Who Was Wagner?

When I took a college course in Wagner, our professor told us on the first day that the final exam would consist of one question: Who was Wagner? On exam day he wrote that question on the blackboard, then left the room.

At the end of the three-hour exam period, some of us were still writing. So when I heard recently of a nine-hour film that attempted to answer our exam question, it didn't strike me as grotesque. I looked forward to it as eagerly as one can possibly anticipate spending nine hours in one seat from noon to something past 11 p.m. (allowing for a dinner break and a couple of intermissions).

Wagner was made as a TV miniseries and has been sold to 37 countries. In 1983 it was shown theatrically in London and Milan and is now being shown this way in several American cities. A five-hour theater version has been shown in Sydney and Edinburgh and is intended for worldwide distribution. The version shown here is in English, though the producers were British, Austrian, and Hungarian. The director, Tony Palmer, has made numerous documentaries, including one on Sir William Walton (who appears briefly and humorously in this film as the dotard King of Saxony). The writer was the satirist Charles Wood, who did the screenplays of The Charge of the Light Brigade and How I Won the War but whose natural bent is constrained here. Much of the dialogue is adapted from letters and journals or is upholstered invention, with a great deal of voice-over narration to cover time lapses and explain details.

Richard Burton is Wagner. (Throughout, the composer's name is pronounced bilingually: Ritchard Vogner. This is much like saying Wilhelm Shakespeare.) Burton moves from scene to scene like a man doing one good day's work after another. This tour-guide feeling isn't entirely the script's fault. Burton has no discernible central idea of the character: he merely gives credibility to whatever he has to say at the moment.

Vanessa Redgrave is Cosima, and if one can forget for a while the many photos of Cosima, then Redgrave is perfect as she glides through her devotions to der Meister. Gemma Craven works with diligence and truth to give presence to Minna, Wagner's first wife, whose worth is often eclipsed by the glamorous later days. Marthe Keller, always an underrated actress, is dignified as Mathilde Wesendonck, patron and lover. Laszlo Galffi is touchingly credible as Ludwig II, the 18-year-old king whose suddenly empowered passion for Wagner's music revitalizes the depressed 51-year-old composer. And the three great British theater knights, Gielgud, Olivier, and Richardson, have a high old time—amusing themselves and us—as members of Ludwig's government.

Most of the cast are good, but some disappointments are strong. Ekkehard Schall (Bertolt Brecht's son-in-law) is puny as the supposedly mesmeric Liszt. Miguel Herz-Kestranek and Richard Pasco are flavorless as von Billow and Wesendonck. The most curious casting is Andrew Cruickshank as the narrator, who has a lot to say. Not only do his plummy readings burden the already overripe writing, but he has such a loud whistle on the letter "s" that most of his pronouncements sound like a kettle on the boil.

Palmer's direction is laden with conventional compositions. Double doors keep opening toward us. Long shots of houses and palaces recur and recur to cover time lapses. I lost count of the number of ceiling-high shots looking down on magnificent halls as figures far below advance between pillars. And Palmer uses very many heavy montages, often featuring lakes and swans along with newly encountered elements, often flashing backward and forward and sideways in time. These montages are less structural aids than Palmer's laborious obeisance to the art of film. This art-consciousness is emphasized by Vittorio Storaro's usual assorted-Jell-O cinematography.

The music was conducted by Sir Georg Solti with several orchestras. I assume that Solti recorded a number of Wagnerian excerpts, then left the director and music editor to use them as they liked. This would account for some of the odd juxtapositions. For instance, as Richard and Mathilde consummate their love, we hear the "Good Friday Spell" from Parsifal. This and many other combinations, anachronistic as well as peculiar, can, in a certain way, be justified. Many critics have noted that most of Wagner's works were incipient in his mind from the start of his career. In his monumental essay "Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner," Thomas Mann says: "His work, strictly speaking, has no chronology. … It is there all at once, and has been there from the beginning." Under that rubric, some of the oddities in usage can be passed.

Biographically the script of course had to select, but in view of the nine-hour range at its command, some of the selections and emphases are questionable. The film begins with a gondola bearing the coffin through Venice in February 1883 as we are told that a great man has died. The story proper begins in Dresden in 1848 when Wagner was 35. This permits the picture to be launched amid revolution, but this starting point excludes at least two important facts. Wagner, radical revisionist of composition, was virtually self-educated in music. And, besides the composing he did in his early years, he had phenomenal experience as a conductor—was one of the trail-blazers at a time when the profession of conducting was on the rise. We do subsequently see some bits of the early years in flashback. (Including one error: Richard and Minna fled Riga in July, not in winter.) But considering the time at his disposal, why did Palmer begin so late in the life?

One reason may have been to establish Wagner as revolutionary. He was indeed active in the Dresden uprising of 1848, accompanied part of the time by Bakunin, and this activity forced him into exile from Germany for 12 years. In the uprising we see the burning of the Dresden opera house, a shot that is repeated often in many of the montages, presumably as a symbol of Wagner's revolutionary nature. But it's well-known that Wagner's early political activity had some personal motivation, that he gradually dropped all revolutionary concerns, that his political interests changed to Germanic racism. The recurrence of that shot of the burning opera house is thus somewhat misleading.

Considerable time is given to Nietzsche (neatly played by Ronald Pickup) when he comes along in the story, though I'm not sure that we had to follow him into the Franco-Prussian War. We get much of the idolatry and the affection, then the break. Nietzsche's farewell to Richard and Cosima is the longest speech in the film, I think—and it furthers misunderstanding of one of the important aesthetic-intellectual disputes of that century. Thomas Mann says: "… Nietzsche's immortal critique [published five years after Wagner's death] ... has always seemed to me like a panegyric with a wrong label, like another kind of glorification. … Wagner's art was the great passion of Nietzsche's life." The film misleads on this matter.

One of the best aspects of the script is its clear presentation of Wagner's fervent anti-Semitism. Obviously any soft-pedaling of this virulence would have been intolerable. But also it connects with one of the two main themes toward which the film stumbles in its second half. The first of these themes is Wagner's productivity as a writer. Perverse as it may sound, the anti-Semitism in the film at least reminds us of his writing, since (as is mentioned) it was an essay of his, "Jewry in Music," that galvanized hate to lasting effect. He wrote copiously on numerous subjects. A 20-page chronological chart at the back of Ernest Newman's Wagner as Man and Artist has a column headed "Prose and Poetical Works" next to the column of "Musical Works." There are long blanks in the music list; there are few in the writings.

The second theme is his influence, which is only hinted at in the film. Wagner's being and music gave rise to a force called Wagnerism—no other composer ever occasioned a cognate force—which was hugely influential in music (let's name only Strauss, Mahler, early Schonberg) and was also influential outside music. Mann reminds us that Baudelaire wrote to Wagner that the latter's music "made him want to make music with words alone, to vie with Wagner in language—all of which had far-reaching consequences for French poetry." And the influence of Wagner on the two cosmic novelists of our century, Proust and Joyce—Joyce in his very method of composition—is so apparent that it needs no comment.

Is all this too much for a film? Even in nine hours? Then why was it made? One can conceive of a highly opinionated, fiery film biography of Wagner—although nine hours would be a bit too much of that—or of a broad historical film that treated its subject as the archetypal romantic artist, the summation of the 19th century, the last and the largest self-dramatizing Artist as Hero. All we get here however is nine hours of Scenes from the Life of…, many of them photographed in the actual places, "cinematized" with laborious montages and dissolves, tied together with fruity narration. Palmer hasn't cheapened his subject: he just isn't big enough for it. The five-hour version may reduce the longueurs and flounderings, but it can't supply wholeness.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.