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The Wagner Family

spacer Directed and edited by Tony Palmer. Gonzo Multimedia TP-DVD172, 106 mins., subtitled

WagnerFamilyDVD

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody," Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said, "come sit next to me." Director Tony Palmer must have extended the same invitation to the biographers, musicians and especially the Wagner descendants who address the camera in this verbose documentary that seems incapable of organizing its justified biliousness and outrage.

Palmer's scattershot approach, circuitous narrative and inadequate identification of speakers and their relationships can make a viewer long for the clarity and focus of a Ken Burns or Sixty Minutes documentary or even a History Channel cram course. Perhaps there are just too many targets — the twentieth-century Wagners' ignominious affiliation with Hitler; the new generation's infighting; the Regie-hubris raging in the Bayreuth temple today. But when even the scholars indulge in questionable tactics on camera, disparaging or imitating the minor players, the moral compass fogs up. At times a numbing effect sets in, and you may even start to suspect the motives of Palmer's star witness, whistleblower Gottfried (son of Wolfgang), who rats out Grandma, Dad and Uncle Wieland with the newfound zeal of a desperate plea bargainer.

At least the denunciations result in a few scoops. Even dabblers in the voluminous Bayreuth/Wagner histories know that the master's only son, Siegfried, led a double life as secretly gay bearer of the precious Wagner seed. (He was wedded, at age fifty-seven, to eighteen-year-old Winifred, who bore Wolfgang, Wieland and two daughters.) We learn here, from Wieland's former mistress, soprano Anja Silja, of the shadows cast by that history, and more importantly of Wieland's anguished guilt about his own wartime experience operating a concentration camp of his own, Flossenburg, close to home in Bayreuth. "That is what killed him," she states, recalling his death from cancer in 1966. It is also news that, according to one daughter, Wieland's work at Bayreuth drew heavily on funds from Silja, when we thought the young soprano had merely provided romantic and artistic inspiration.

Both grandsons escaped legal consequences for their past, but the film portrays Wolfgang as the greater villain thereafter. It is possible to doubt some of the accusations, such as that he evicted Wieland's family from their lifelong home, "Wahnfried," and destroyed historical evidence, but the footage we see of Wolfgang vilifying his nieces and his own children is almost sickeningly self-incriminating. 

In its zeal to equate Wagner and Nazism, the film cites some simple-minded charges, such as branding Parsifal a paean to German racial purity. Too often Palmer relies on knee-jerk associations, pairing Nazi footage with a Wagnerian soundtrack as if the two arose from a single source.

And yet, even this confused jeremiad eventually airs some interesting artistic and ethical issues concerning the current Wagner generation. Wolfgang's daughters Eva and Katharina, codirectors at Bayreuth, question the family's exclusive right to rule the festival in perpetuity and the composer's exclusive domination of its repertoire. Gottfried's final comment after all the crimes and recriminations also has considerable resonance: "Can you be proud to be a Wagner?" spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2