Wagner & Me: Stephen Fry Wrestles with the Anti-Semitic Composer and His Own Jewish Conscience
What do you do when your idol's biggest fan is Hitler? Stephen Fry, the lovable 55-year-old English actor and writer, goes to Bayreuth. That's the town in southern Germany where 19th-century composer Richard Wagner built his own wonderland theater and where he eventually staged his epic Ring cycle. It's also where Wagner's relatives welcomed Hitler, who then convinced people to kill Fry's Jewish relatives in the Holocaust. It's not easy being a Jewish Wagner lover.
"My head tells me I'm ready, but my heart needs convincing," Fry says in a scene from Wagner & Me, the documentary he narrates about his journey to figure out whether he can, in good conscience, sit in the theater at Bayreuth for a performance of the music Hitler loved. It's not just Hitler, the guy Fry boomingly refers to just as "him." Wagner loudspoke his own anti-Semitism in an essay called "Jewishness in Music." But was it, you know, just of-the-day to be anti-Semitic? Can Fry be a good Jew and a Wagner lover? He goes to an Auschwitz survivor, a cellist, to ask her blessing. She says, first of all, that the rumors of Wagner's music playing in the camps were not true for Auschwitz. She also says, "Why can't you just listen to it at home?" But then she softens. "Why not? Maybe you'll never do it again, but at least you'll have experienced it. Well, you tell me what it felt like when you come back from the shrine."
This is what's missing from Wagner & Me: the postscript. What did it feel like? Otherwise, the movie is satisfying. Fry is the dazzledest of fans. He swoons over a hoist built solely for one moment in Die Meistersinger, Hitler's favorite. But when he goes to Nuremburg, to where Hitler speechified in front of thousands, he can't go up to the platform to join the tourists. "I have to remind myself how emotionally complicated, how raw, how anti-fascist Wagner is." The music is like a beautiful tapestry stained indelibly, he says. Then he wraps himself in it, and is transported.