LIVES AND FACES OF RICHARD WAGNER
THROUGH ONE HUNDRED YEARS
OF CINEMATOGRAPHIC REALISATIONS
by Nicolas CRAPANNE
Richard Wagner’s musical work inspired a colossal number of filmmakers who drew from the immense repertoire of the Master of Bayreuth material to musically illustrate their works.
From the hugely famous “Ride of the Valkyries” in the style of Francis Ford Coppola in “Apocalypse now” to “Siegfried’s Funeral March”, true leitmotif throughout “Excalibur”, the medieval epic by John Borman, the list of films really producing Richard Wagner’s music on screen would be too long to enumerate. The latter, indeed, with its powerful power of evocation and description has been at the very source of images enhanced by the Wagnerian sound magic and that will long remain engraved in our memories as movie lovers. Besides, this aspect of the use of Wagnerian musical material to serve – for sometimes questionable purposes – a number of films has already been dealt with by Laurent Guido during his presentation entitled “Faux airs de Wagner au cinéma” (Wagner-like appearances in movies) and organized by the Circle Richard Wagner Lyonnais on 13 February last year. During this presentation, the speaker rightly formulated the issue of the reception of Wagner’s work in the XXth century through the covers of his music.
More affected by the very essence of the Wagnerian drama, some filmmakers have also been seduced by the temptation to transpose the composer’s lyrical work onto the cinema canvas. Sometimes even with a certain talent, if not success, Wagner’s work being reserved for a public of movie lovers even more minimal than all the music-loving film buffs.
This was notably the case in 1982 when the director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who was well acquainted with the work of the Master of Bayreuth, succeeded in achieving the impossible, namely to stage and film Parsifal. In the studio and with the voices being dubbed, thus bringing new cinematographic possibilities (and infinite interpretations), like the Parsifal character sometimes played by a young man, sometimes by a mature man, and even a woman, all in a refined aesthetic with a certain coherence and even bringing thanks to the cinematographic techniques a new light to Wagner’s masterpiece to which the composer, who is known for having been fond of artistic novelties and technological prowess, would probably not have been indifferent.
But today’s aim is not to analyse how Richard Wagner’s work has been ported and adapted for the screen time and time again. The figure of the composer just like his particularly epic, if not fantastic, inflamed, passionate – in a word, extraordinary – life has since the beginnings of cinema inspired a number of directors who drew inspiration – with more or less biographical accuracy – from this life to give birth to around twenty films. These were incidentally already listed by Chantal Perrier on the blog “La Vie Wagnérienne” (The Wagnerian Life) in March 2015.
If in some realisations, Wagner appears to be the central character in a film about his life, others, on the other hand, only show the remarkable figure of the Master of Bayreuth as a secondary figure in a film depicting the life and career of one of his contemporaries (Liszt, Berlioz…). It is not innocent to note that depending on the period during which these different films were written and made, certain aspects of the composer’s very personality – unassailable musical genius, tenacious political revolutionary or even relentless womanizer – have been put forward to serve the cinematographic interests and the production issues (that is to say: the audience expected in the theatres).
Therefore, let’s take a look at one hundred years of creations about the lives and faces of Richard Wagner in cinema.
If it had been long and tedious to linger over all the appearances (some being quite minor or even anecdotal) of Richard Wagner’s character in cinema, we will focus on five of them, particularly noteworthy, each for different reasons. A quasi-exhaustive list of the films devoted to Richard Wagner’s life or showing it in a secondary way is also appended to our presentation today.
1) RICHARD WAGNER, a film by Carl Froelich (1913)
The first film dedicated to the life of the composer of Tristan and Parsifal dates from 1913, the year of celebration of the Master’s birth.
This is a silent film that lasts about 1h40 in its initial version, which was presented to the Berlin public for the first time in… May 1913, so exactly one hundred years after the composer’s birth in Leipzig. The motion picture world generally considers by the way this film as the first “feature film” of the History of the 7th art. Most of the productions – in black and white and silent naturally – indeed did not go beyond ten minutes then.
The film is divided into seven distinct parts which are separated from each other by cardboards enabling the viewer to situate themselves in the composer’s life, from his childhood to his “Death in Venice”. Based on an original script by William Wauer, it is actually the very first direction by the young director Carl Froelich who would distinguish himself afterwards with nearly eighty films… and a position at the head of Adolf Hitler’s Film Chamber of the Reich.
A loyal collaborator since his adolescence to the German producer Oskar Messter, the young filmmaker Carl Froelich marked with this “Richard Wagner” his first real work as a director, with the purpose of making known to a wider German audience than the confidential handful of spectators of the Bayreuth Festival the life of one of the giants of German musical art.
Very close to the biographical reality – at least as it was conveyed by the autobiographical writings of Wagner himself – the film, which would be the only one to show Wagner as a child, would depict pages directly inspired by “My Life” (Mein Leben). It would also start with the death of his stepfather Ludwig Geyer with this famous sentence towards the young Richard, then at the piano, “Would he have a flair for music?”.
With so much fidelity to the Master’s autobiography, Froelich reproduced – with the ingenuity of his camera – the horror scene that the young Richard lived two years later in the house of a friend of his uncle and aunt Adolf and Friederike Wagner, the house of Jeannette Thome, which belonged at the time to Augustus II the Strong. At night, in this solemn and impressive house, the young Richard was frightened by the paintings in his room that began to come alive like in Hoffmann’s famous “Tales”, and from which emanated terrifying spectres.
If his musical learning with the Choirmaster Theodor Weinlig is quite well illustrated, the composer’s early (and difficult) years are rather disparate, and it must be acknowledged that without some knowledge of Wagner’s life, the choice obliged by the silent film genre of the alternation of indicative cardboards with the filmed scenes remains quite confusing for the viewer.
The scenes illustrating Wagner’s political engagement are not forgotten, although the uninformed neophyte may lose themselves a little bit in the bellicose events that are illustrated, since the lack of indication appears confusing and since on multiple occasions, we no longer know where Wagner gets involved in street fights… in Dresden… or in Leipzig… or in Paris. It is disconcerting to say the least.
The women in Wagner’s life are not treated with the accuracy one might expect today of such a work claiming to be biographical and respectful of the historical truth. The pitfall of the genre (silent film) is precisely the parody or the caricature. Alas, the director does not succeed in avoiding them when he presents Minna (or rather Minna’s physical appeals) in a rough and almost comical way. The actress, a certain Manny Ziener, had generous curves that the spectator will not fail even today to fully appreciate!
But undoubtedly the most interesting thing about this first film dedicated to Richard Wagner’s life lies in the incarnation of the main character. To play the role of the composer on screen, the producer Oskar Messter called on the actor – and incidentally also music composer himself – Giuseppe Becce. After a few trials during the preliminary castings before the shooting of the film, the resemblance between the two men was so staggering that it seemed like an obvious fact. It was therefore up to Becce to play the figure of Richard Wagner for the first time in cinema.
The actor, thrilled by the honour of such an adventure, would also be entrusted with the composition of the accompanying music played, as the tradition of the silent film wanted, by a small orchestra located in the theatres in front of the screen.
As important as the financial resources for this production were, the team would not be able to convince the Wagner family (Cosima first) or the Schott publishers to give up the exploitation rights of the composer’s original music at a lower cost. A film about Wagner without a single note by Wagner, a challenge, a madness! Yet this is what the actor-composer would resolve to do by picking up musical extracts from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and adapting them in a quasi-Wagnerian way notably with the use of a leitmotif… of a non-Wagnerian nature, and for good reason!
For a long time this film, yet crucial in the history of cinema, was forgotten and only a few connoisseurs knew of its existence. Like the fine experts of the Lyon Richard Wagner Circle who had the privilege of watching a screening according to my sources in 2010. More a document-legacy than a real cinematographic success, this film nevertheless was the subject of a very recent restoration (in 2013) and was re-mastered naturally for the celebrations of the bicentennial of the composer’s birth. It was in this new “rejuvenated” version that it was broadcast on television (on Arte in January 2013), as well as projected in some theatres or concert halls, in particular at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, on 22 May, 2013 – two centuries to the day after the birth of the composer! With, for the occasion, the interpretation for the live music by an orchestra, the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate, under the direction of Frank Strobel.
A revival for a film-event that the history of cinema had somewhat forgotten.
2) MAGIC FIRE, also known as “RICHARD WAGNER AND WOMEN” due to the German translation of the title “FRAUEN UM RICHARD WAGNER”, a film by Wilhelm Dieterle (1955)
Before looking at the study of Wilhelm Dieterle’s film which this content will be about afterwards, it is rather interesting to note that during the years of Reich propaganda, no director was commissioned by the Nazi cultural authorities to adapt for the screen the life of the one whom Adolf Hitler revered almost like an absolute idol. Whatever the message that would have been conveyed by such an adaptation, it would have been interesting to study the portrait of such a work (by a historian, biographer or pure propaganda), especially with the perspective we have today. How would Hitler and his henchmen (whose ability to distort reality and history to serve the cause of the regime and his ideology are quite known) have adapted to a Wagner fleeing his creditors as much as his responsibilities when it was about material problems, his famous enmities with some of his contemporaries, his sometimes ambiguous political stances and his more than “disorderly” love life?
Thus a heavy wall of silence was put on the life of the “Giant Wagner” and a unique place made for his musical and literary work, during the years of the Reich. In other words, the work – including the most debatable writings – the work alone, but not the man.
It was not until many years after the Second World War that Wagner – whose work had been too connoted in Germany by the Nazis – returned to the forefront. In a film that, all made up of blue and pink tones, might at first appear rather anecdotal and romanticized to the extreme, but that, if one takes a closer look, does not fail to reveal certain points of interest. Certainly not with its historical accuracy: Wagner’s life handled by Wilhelm Dieterle in this film of 1955 is unfortunately mangled from end to end during the two hours that it lasts in its original version.
The scriptwriter indeed drew inspiration to adapt the composer’s life on screen from a novel by Bertita Harding Magic Fire: The Story of Wagner’s Life and Music (1954) that multiplies errors and inconsistencies. The scenario of the film unfortunately reproduces these same biographical inaccuracies. The guiding line of the film’s narrative seems in fact to restrict itself to the superposition of the composer’s romantic adventures, some of which are treated in an almost caricatural way, first being Minna’s character. Perfectly flippant, superficial, coquettish and spendthrift then naturally later in the film, a hysterical fury. The complete opposite of the real Minna who bitterly kept her weather eye open, as we know. The Wagner character, as for him, played by Alan Badel, thus comes off, in this whirlwind of crinolines in pastel tones, alas quite quickly like an inveterate womaniser; all aspects of his political and ideological as well as artistic reflections, is often pushed into the background. Just as a side note…
The film however was made with quite unusual means because the producer was betting before its release on a flawless success. The costumes each seeming more luxurious than the other, the sets are accurately recreated and some scenes are even shot in loco – especially in Zurich, at the Wesendoncks’, and at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
Thus the film shot in Trucolor mode – the most advanced and also the most expensive colour technique of the time – scenes as sumptuous as they are spectacular and also promising for the music lover who the passionate Wagnerian (also) is such as the reconstitution of evenings of opera productions on stage. Therefore we witness the creation of The Flying Dutchman, the battle of Tannhäuser in Paris or even the four episodes of The Ring in Bayreuth. All this could have taken on an exciting interest for an audience eager to plunge with accuracy into the Wagnerian adventure at the time.
Mistake by the decorator or unequivocal error by the producer? – there is nothing to be found on the productions as they were presented to the public at the time, and that we know either thanks to photographs or paintings. The interest of the reconstitution is thus greatly diminished, and it is a pity both for the public in search of historical authenticity and for the music lover.
A detail to end the global presentation of this film, its stakes and its limits, and not the least.
The musical direction of the production – namely the composition of original music as well as the excerpts from Wagner’s music performed to serve the action – was entrusted, for the occasion, to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose symphonic music and opera composing abilities (The Dead City, among others) were as renowned as his film score composing skills, and especially after his exile to the United States in 1936.
A funny anecdote to end the quick presentation of this film: it is Korngold himself who plays the role of Hans Richter, the conductor and loyal friend of Richard Wagner. Korngold-Richter at the head of the orchestra in the pit of the Bayreuth Festival for the creation of The Ring in 1876, an unprecedented event both for the history of cinema and… of Music!
3) LUDWIG, a film by Lucchino Visconti (1972) (1972)
In theory, Visconti’s masterpiece could appear as an extrapolation of our main purpose, because, in this work as masterly as it is colossal (close to 4h30 – so exactly 285 minutes – in its long version) released in 1972, the central character is not Richard Wagner, but of course, King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Yet, and this is not only due to Trevor Howard’s performance who plays the composer in a true-to-life way, everything in this “opera for cinema” not only revolves around Wagner’s work – an ubiquitous music from the beginning to the end – but also around the composer’s personality. And his influence on the monarch of Bavaria. Because it is indeed the relationship – sometimes ambiguous and/or difficult – between the two men, power and seduction games filmed with the intelligence of Visconti’s camera that all the film is based on. But telling the life of King Ludwig II (the film incidentally begins with the ascension to the throne of the monarch in May 1864 and we know that his absolute priority as soon as he ascended to the throne was to call beside him the composer whom he cherished since his childhood) without Wagner would have been perfectly impossible.
Other films moreover that we did not mention and devoted to the life of Ludwig II had also already depicted Richard Wagner’s personality. Sometimes in a caricatural way, thus taking the bias of the “defence” of Ludwig II. As it is often believed that in this unique history of friendship and patronage in the History of Music, one must necessarily take sides for one or the other of the two men.
With Visconti, for the first time, Richard Wagner, played by the fascinating actor that is Trevor Howard, appears in all that he had that was visionary (scenes where he deploys the plans of his Festival Theatre project), human or even child (when he plays with his dogs to the point of rolling on the ground), but also and especially as a deeply desperate friend when he became aware of the madness that reached his monarch friend and that he would not be able to do anything to save him from the justice of men. And it indeed required the genius and grace of the camera of a voluntarily impartial Visconti in the look he had on the so complex relationship that animated the two men to achieve a picture with such contrasting tones (just like he will be the first – and the only one – to give a real face to Sissi by means of a Romy Schneider who, before him, had only been able to approach the role of the Empress without revealing its true complexity).
Let’s note finally – and it is not a pure casting coincidence – that it is the “Muse” of the director, the actress Silvana Mangano, of noble, proud and staid stature, who plays Cosima’s character. To end our presentation of this film, let’s highlight the fact that on piano or even orchestra was executed – besides the extracts from Tristan, Tannhäuser or even Lohengrin – for the first time at the time the theme known as “Elegy” which holds the number 93 in the WWV catalogue of Wagner’s works. A theme of sobriety and infinite nostalgia that the Wagnerian music lover will have heard for the very first time on the occasion of the production of this film.
Thanks to a coincidence regarding the dates of the cinematographic releases, the same year, in 1972, came out in theatres another film dedicated to the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King. It is the work of the great filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who is a staunch Wagnerian, even if his relationship with the composer and his work remains ambiguous to say the least.
The film – which resolutely takes the bias of a very personal tone and much less historical reconstruction than its “big brother” released the same year – is centered on a study of the monarch’s madness, sucking the viewer into the descent into hell of Ludwig II. Wagner’s character appears in a much more anecdotal way than in Visconti’s work, as it is more for Syberberg about attaching himself to the power of fascination that Wagner’s music holds over the monarch and how it also contributes to his descent into madness than about focusing – directly or indirectly – on the composer’s life.
So, fascinating, as is necessarily every Syberberg opus, but off topic regarding the subject we are dealing with here.
4) WAGNER, a film released in the form of a television series by Tony Palmer (1983)
In a nutshell: an epic! An adventure whose history itself evokes not without a certain irony the destiny of the ambition of the Wagnerian work: in a word, immoderate.
Because Tony Palmer’s initial project was indeed to make a film for cinema on the centennial of the death of the composer. In his initial version, the director did not succeed – since his ambition was so immense and, venerable in the way that it aimed to retrace as accurately as possible the life and career of the composer – to edit the movie to less than… 7h46 of work intended for the projection.
Impossible in these conditions, of course! Even proposing a “short” version (that does not last less than 5h still!) that both the director… and distributors to theatres deny. Thus the most fascinating, the most complete, but also the most luxurious project devoted to the life of Richard Wagner in cinema fails with losses and clamour.
The work carried out by the entire film crew, from the writing of the synopsis to the final production borders on spectacular: all the scenes, without exception, are shot in natural settings and in the places inhabited or frequented by the composer, like the scenes filmed in Ludwig II of Bavaria’s castles.
Wagner’s music, omnipresent, is played by no less than three different orchestras including the very revered Vienna Philharmonic, all under the direction of Sir Georg Solti.
To play Richard Wagner’s character, the director uses a giant with Richard Burton, who will sign with this grand film one of his last appearances on screen. Even if sometimes the interpretation is a little hesitant (but the purpose – namely to cover a career lasting more than fifty years – is so colossal that one can forgive an actor for not necessarily being the most convincing on all the scenes), we probably have here, but it is a very personal opinion, the best, the most complete and the fairest incarnation of the composer before the camera.
By his side, a casting that we would today consider “five stars”. We can see this for ourselves with some of the actors in the long list of characters in the film: Vanessa Redgrave, fascinating Cosima, true-to-life, Sir Laurence Olivier, Marthe Keller or even Sir Ralph Richardson. To play the singers creating the roles in the Master’s operas, Tony Palmer spared no expense: a casting that could compete with those of Bayreuth. Thus we find Peter Hofmann and Dame Gwyneth Jones in the roles of the von Carosfelds, the creators of Tristan and Isolde, or even Jess Thomas in the role of Albert Niemann, creator of the role of Tannhäuser in its French version of 1861. An absolute luxury!
As a guiding line through this fantastic epic: Richard Wagner’s battle. A constant struggle and on all fronts. Both to make his ideas regarding politics accepted and to succeed in imposing himself as a composer. Wagner, the revolutionary of the Dresden barricades, keeps in mind throughout the film his political, musical and artistic fight. A God revered or hated with passion who has not forgotten that he was also… human. Another figure of the god Odin…
Fortunately for the public, if the film project failed in its initial project and was never distributed commercially to theatres, the director accepted the compromise of a diffusion on television in the form of a series of ten episodes. Since 2011, Tony Palmer’s work is available in a box of three DVDs.
5) And after Tony Palmer… ?
With as many means implemented by Tony Palmer in his colossal project, could we venture to embark on such an adventure again? Since if Tony Palmer’s work was unsurpassable both musically and in terms of quality of interpretation and transcription of Richard Wagner’s life on screen, it reigned since the debacle of such a crazy adventure like a sort of curse to approach again the composer’s life. Not to mention a certain humility that should be felt by any director wishing to confront such a task that necessarily calls for comparison with Visconti, Syberberg or Palmer!
There were, however, a few attempts to try to bring to the screen Richard Wagner’s fascinating and multifaceted character. And especially, in a very personal way in his approach, a film as curious as it is confusing: “Wahnfried”, a film by Peter Patzak, released in theatres in 1986. And presented, nothing less than that, Out of Competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987! The cinematographic work that focuses on Richard’s unusual relationship with Cosima stretches from the Tribschen years to the Wahnfried ones, so over about fifteen years.
Really strange that it may sometimes seem almost “shocking” (especially in the physical veneration held by Cosima for her divine husband), the film nevertheless has the advantage of producing secondary characters in the composer’s life who were nonetheless just as important as they were decisive, including Friedrich Nietzsche or Judith Gautier. Too intimist undoubtedly, or intended for a few fans as rare as they were confidential, the work did not make an impression and was soon forgotten.
Let us end our remarks on a slight note after the account of all these cinematographic and human adventures which, often, took the importance of a lifetime, for a director or actor.
Was it done unconsciously? Because of an inflated self-esteem? A “clumsy” innocence to say the least…?
On 9 November, 2011 – I quote the date as for future generations it will undoubtedly have importance! – the director Jean-Louis Guillermou presented – in a way, it must be admitted, that was quite confidential since few rooms had agreed to project such a work – his film “Celles qui aimaient Richard Wagner” (“Those who loved Richard Wagner”). A rather personal outlook on the composer’s life, presented as its narration through the love experience of two young people today.
If Jean-François Balmer would have been able to play, with his physique and his theatrical experience, a credible Wagner, we won’t mention the rest of the film…
Therefore over almost 100 years, and almost immediately after his death, the figure of Richard Wagner, a composer that was as brilliant as he was controversial, with a human dimension that was as impressive as it was envied that it could have given birth to the partisan frenzy of some filmmakers, spreads over about twenty films that – if one quickly forgets the worst and most caricatural ones – complete like a kaleidoscope the portrait of a multifaceted man.
And the cinematographic adventure by Tony Palmer through his grand epic perhaps sums up the ambition of wanting to portray on screen the life and personality of an artist as complex and as brilliant as Richard Wagner’s were: excessive and infinite.
Suffice it to say for a director, it is unrealizable!
Seminar at the Lyon Richard Wagner Circle (20 November, 2016)