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Stephen Fry comes to musical terms in ‘Wagner & Me’

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‘WAGNER & ME’ ★★★

First Run Features presents a documentary written and directed by Patrick McGrady. Featuring Stephen Fry. Running time: 89 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: January 1, 2013 6:15AM

Many writers and musicians have spoken of “The Wagner Effect,” the way the unique harmonies and long, seemingly endless, lines of Richard Wagner’s grand 19th century operas grab certain listeners and stir, even transform, their souls.

It’s not surprising that one of those effected so by the composer and dramatist is the British polymath Stephen Fry. In Patrick McGrady’s 2010 documentary on Fry’s fascination, “Wagner & Me,” we hear the actor, writer, director, television host, comedian, mental-health advocate and gay rights activist recall his grandfather playing for him, at age 11, a vinyl recording of the overture to “Tannhauser” and falling under its yearning spell.

Currently playing Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” in London’s West End, his first stage play since a famous breakdown 18 years ago, Fry has many gifts. So it’s not surprising that it’s more than Wagner’s music he finds fascinating. After all, this is the composer and onetime political revolutionary, who, through sheer will, patience and persistence, dreamed up “Gesamtkunstwerk,” the idea of a total work of art — music, drama, design, space, place in time — and designed and built a shrine to it (and himself) in a town in southern Germany, Bavaria’s Bayreuth, with a festival that goes strong after almost 140 years. His combination of curiosity and idealization would probably have made him an interesting tour guide in any event.

But Fry’s love of Wagner is complicated, as it is for many, by Wagner’s personal and public anti-Semitism and by the later embrace of his work, abetted and supported by his immediate descendants, by Adolf Hitler — who found not only welcome but support for his racial ideas and dark dreams in Bayreuth. Fry is a Jew who grew up knowing that much of his mother’s family was murdered in the Holocaust, and that kept him away from the annual Wagner Festival for the first 50 years of his life.

After much emotional wrestling, he visited visit Bayreuth for the first time in 2009. He shares his back and forth internal debates, which could have seemed pedantic or self-involved if Fry were not so charming and open. He also lets Wagner’s music and art speak for itself and does the same with those he interviews who study, perform and interpret Wagner. As a result, there’s much here for newcomers to the world of “The Ring” as well as “Ringheads” alike.

In fact, the film’s only serious flaw is Fry proclaiming over and over again that he “can’t believe!” he is touching a Wagner manuscript, walking on Bayreuth’s Green Hill, listening to a transcription of the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” on a piano Wagner himself had played and that he “shouldn’t keep saying this.” He’s right: He shouldn’t. It gets annoying.

But this is by no means all kid in a candy shop stuff. We get “Mad” King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle with its Wagner rooms, but we also get a visit to Nuremberg, home of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and Hitler’s Nazi Party rallies. We also meet Fry’s vibrant friend, Anna Lasker-Wallfisch, an Auschwitz survivor who owes her life to playing the cello in an inmates’ orchestra at the camp. We see and hear rehearsals (with conductor Christian Thielemann) and production excerpts (Norwegian stage director Stefan Herheim taking up some Nazi history) from Bayreuth and St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre (Valery Gergiev). Also, sickening archival material of Hitler, from the 1920s, on being cheered in Bayreuth practically as a member of the family.

Fry, wisely makes no claims for whether or how politics trumps art, or the other way around. In 90 minutes, he lets both his innocence and his deep but lightly worn knowledge give us a view of the complexities of human creation and what it means to be fascinated by such things.

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