To truly appreciate “Wagner & Me,” a BBC documentary getting a spotty theatrical release in this country, you have to cherish the music of Richard Wagner with the same quivering intensity as host Stephen Fry. A writer, actor, and beloved British television personality — think Oscar Wilde with the rough edges sanded off — Fry was apparently floored by a recording of “Tannhäuser” as a child; to him, the Ring Cycle and Wagner’s other operas are the alpha and omega of Western Civilization’s artistic expression.
To that end, Fry travels to Bayreuth, in southern Germany, to poke around backstage at the Festspielhaus, visit the composer’s haunts, and generally plotz at being so close to the flame. Descending into the orchestra pit, Fry points out a chair that “has hosted the bottoms of the greatest conductors in the history of music. . . . I feel like a child in a sweet shop.”
This is as sticky as it sounds, and it doesn’t square with the darker stuff: Wagner’s anti-Semitic beliefs and Adolph Hitler’s full-hearted embrace of the Ring Cycle and its epic German mythologizing. Fry is Jewish and lost relatives to the Holocaust; “Wagner & Me” records his attempts to ensure that going to Bayreuth can ever be “the right thing.” There are interviews with professors and Wagner’s brisk great-granddaughter Eva. The latter currently directs the festival and grapples with her ancestor’s ghost more tough-mindedly than Fry, who shakes her hand and crows to the camera, “I touched a Wagner!”
Under Patrick McGrady’s direction, the film’s much too ginger about separating the double-helix of sonic glory and bleak legacy. Every so often, “Wagner & Me” brings you up short: Fry standing in the same Festspielhaus window that Hitler did in a famous photograph; an Auschwitz survivor and cellist — she played for Dr. Mengele, avoiding eye contact — who refuses to grant the Nazis the power to destroy great music; an academic who observes, “Just because [Wagner] may have been a nasty little man and a nasty anti-Semite, doesn’t mean his music isn’t as supreme as it is.”
That’s a mark of the contortions “Wagner & Me” works itself into in the effort to celebrate the music without seeming terminally naive. The camerawork crisply captures astonishing interiors and Wagnerian mountainscapes, and opera lovers will relish the backstage tours and glimpses of recent productions, including a Bayreuth “Parsifal” that directly addresses Nazism. But the passion that Fry and company feel for Wagner’s work keeps them from the measured appraisal this film needs. They hear him, but they don’t see him.