Wagner & Me


The “Me” here is likable ol’ Stephen Fry, who in this sprightly doc considers one of the tougher questions of morality and aesthetics: What honor can good-hearted people afford to the achievements of perhaps the greatest artist of the 19th century when that great artist was a raging, anti-Semitic asshole—and, decades later, was adored by even worse assholes who exploited that artist’s work to sell nothing less than the fantasy of the Third Reich? Fry, both a Jew and a lifelong devotee of Richard Wagner, is a sensitive, excitable guide to Wagner’s music—which is celebrated here—and to Wagner’s Germany, which Fry does not deny some knocks. The film’s centerpiece is Fry’s visit to Bayreuth, home of the annual Wagner festival that dates back to the final years of Wagner’s life. Fry gazes up at a window that Hitler once stood at, shows us a bust of Wagner that the Führer commissioned, and walks us through the Wagner family’s—and the festival’s—shameful early embrace of Nazism. In Nuremberg, Fry notes Hitler’s use of Wagner’s music in rallies and concludes that Wagner’s art is a tapestry that is still great and still capable of inspiring, despite some permanent stains. Most of the time, though, Fry is an unabashed appreciator. He paws at costumes, thrills to touch Wagner’s own piano, and looks right at the camera to apologize for being so excited. It’s the light, charming touch absent in Wagner—and proof that both of the famous men referred to in the title benefit from each other’s association.