Directed by Carl Fröhlich. Tony Palmer TPDVD171, silent, black and white, 82 mins.
A silent movie about the life of Richard Wagner sounds like the stuff of Mel Brooks. Which is probably why I couldn’t help thinking of his 1976 comedy Silent Movie as I watched The Life and Works of Richard Wagner.
The film, written and designed by William Wauer, was directed by Carl Fröhlich, who later became president of the Third Reich’s film regulation organization. It was originally released in Europe in the spring of 1913 — to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s birth — and had its New York premiere in November of that year. Purported to be one of the earliest “biopics,” it was also one of the first full-length films, running for eighty minutes and predating The Birth of a Nation by two years.
Produced by Oskar Messter, who in 1903 had invented the first “sound film” by coupling a gramophone to a film projector, The Life and Works of Richard Wagner was intended to have an all-Wagner musical score (and practically cries out for just that). But when Wagner’s heirs asked for the ungodly sum of half a million marks, the Italian composer Giuseppe Becce was quickly hired to write the accompanying music. Because of his uncanny resemblance to the great composer, he was also signed to play the title role!
Becce wrote the music for several pictures, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and it would be interesting to hear his score for this film — or any score, for that matter, even the synthetic one that accompanied The Life and Works of Richard Wagner a few years ago when it was screened in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, the newly released DVD of The Life and Works of Richard Wagner has been saddled with the ridiculous title Silent Wagner — apparently alluding to the fact that the viewer can choose to watch it in stony silence, with no musical accompaniment, or with the occasionally enlightening but more often snarky commentary of Tony Palmer, the director of the opulent but static nine-hour miniseries Wagner (1983) starring Richard Burton. (It’s not as bad as, say, Jerry Springer providing commentary for Downton Abbey, but still.…)
On first silent viewing, the 1913 film appears to be a picture-book hodgepodge of scenes from Wagner’s life, starting with the death of his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer (who expires as little Richard plays the piano). It quickly moves on to his unhappy marriage to the actress Minna Planer and their flight from Riga to Paris by carriage and boat — accompanied by a slate announcing, “The tumultuous journey by sea gives him the idea for his opera The Flying Dutchman,” and by a Méliès-type special effect of a ghostly ship materializing out of thin air. Then there’s his 1839 meeting in Paris with the composer Meyerbeer, who rolls his eyes and yawns in apparent boredom as Wagner plays Rienzi on the piano (but nonetheless hands the young man a letter of recommendation to the director of the Opéra in Paris), followed by a scene of Wagner telling the tale of Siegfried to his friends in Zurich.
Wagner’s life is sanitized to a degree: an unsuspecting viewer would think that he simply nursed a platonic crush on Mathilde Wesendonck, or that he divorced Minna (which in reality he never did) long before meeting Cosima.
Still, Becce is such a compelling performer that he somehow manages to rise above the cloak-and-dagger sequences of Wagner escaping his creditors or the hammy moments when the characters appear before Wagner’s eyes while he’s creating his operas. Becce eschews coarse acting for subtle looks and gestures. Case in point: the offhanded way in which he runs his hand through his hair after the disastrous Dresden premiere of The Flying Dutchman becomes a complete expression of his angst.
And if you put the film into its proper cinematic and historical perspective — Cosima was still very much alive when it was made, and the cast includes the esteemed Jewish actor Ernst Reicher as Ludwig II — The Life and Works of Richard Wagner becomes a sort of must-see for cineastes and opera-lovers alike.
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