Wagner - The Epic Story of an Egnimatic Genius

Remember that it’s a feature film and this biopic is a rewarding watch

Author: 
Mike Ashman

Wagner - The Epic Story of an Egnimatic Genius

At first glance, the work of Tony Palmer and his writer Charles Wood looks like a good, old-fashioned Hollywood biopic, here done English-style with a cast laden with knighted actors (and even William Walton in a cameo role as the King of Saxony). But, seen here at a fuller seven-hour length than it achieved on its first, minimal distribution 20 years ago, the film has a more adventurous agenda. It is based around a series of monologues, both true and improvised – Wagner’s ‘revolutionary’ speech to the Vaterlandsverein, a rant at a post-concert reception in Zürich drawing on parts of Jewishness in Music – and on scenes of confrontation – the composer extracting money from Otto Wesendonk while openly courting his wife, the in-fighting with Ludwig II’s ministers in Munich.

The more imaginative and free Palmer and Wood are, the better the film is. Wagner, Minna and von Bülow dropping coins on the heads of Meyerbeer and his friends at the Paris premiere of Tannhäuser, or Wagner shooing Hermann Levi off the conductor’s rostrum in Bayreuth with the comment ‘You should be baptised’ are moments of gripping, fictional drama which seem inescapably true comments on Wagner’s manners and anti-Semitism.

As with all of Palmer’s films and writing, his combative enthusiasm for his subject and for letting the layman into the story of great art takes in research both astonishingly accurate (a Beethoven symphony performed in Zürich actually has Wagner’s own instrumental retouchings) and woefully wrong (the Paris Tannhäuser is performed here in German, 20 minutes after Wagner has been seen telling Minna about the problems of translating the work into French). The almost continuous Wagner music on the soundtrack (largely conducted by Solti) is sometimes used with great subtlety, sometimes like an aural sledgehammer. Richard Burton’s unhysterical, almost Brechtian performance as Wagner is a huge asset.

Feature films are not to be judged as historically researched documentaries. Remember that and the acting, lookalike casting, big historical sweep (the screenplay takes Wagner from his post in Dresden to his death in Venice) and grade A cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) will give pleasure.

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