Monday, 14 September 2009

South Bank Show: The Wagner Family, 13 September 2009

I shall probably regret this, given the risk of eliciting knee-jerk reactions from the monstrous regiment of Wagner-haters. However, I felt I could not simply remain silent after the quite disgraceful treatment of Wagner on last night's South Bank Show.

Directed by Tony Palmer, The Wagner Family was at best a confused mess, with little apparent direction - in any sense - and little ostensible point beyond muck-raking. I cannot imagine that anyone without prior knowledge would have understood what was going on, still less why this might be of any importance. The tedious yet all-too-expected reference to the dreadful clan as Germany's 'Royal Family' was made, and indeed much of it resembled the assemblage of gossip we have come to expect from anything concerning the real thing. But really? I have never met anyone, from Germany or elsewhere, who thinks of the family as deserving anything like that level of attention. One can well understand why Wieland Wagner's children and the elder children of Wolfgang Wagner would feel bitter; it seems pretty clear that they have been wronged. I hold no brief for Wolfgang. As a director, he is at best a non-entity, though his administrative skills clearly helped Bayreuth. I certainly hold no brief for his younger daughter, whose attempts at direction seem at best risible. But would it not have been proper to have someone put their side of the story? It hardly seems credible that anyone would have changed his mind on the relative merits of the brothers; indeed, it would surely have strengthened the case. And surely Katharina Wagner's declaration of intent to open the family archive should have been mentioned, if only sceptically.

That was one thing; it is difficult and doubtless not worth the effort to feel sorry for Wolfgang. But the initial treatment of his grandfather, the one who matters, was nothing short of a disgrace. As sole commentator on Parsifal, there was Robert Gutman, whose extremism on the subject would embarrass even those inclined to a racialist interpretation. His assertion, for this was no argument, that Parsifal was somehow about 'racial purity' was never questioned, let alone challenged, likewise his assertion that there was nothing Christian to the work. The latter is a complex issue, but it deserves proper consideration or otherwise leaving alone. As for the claim that Wagner somehow - at least Joachim Köhler argues his case - led to Hitler and even to the Holocaust...

In many cases, I should be tempted to shrug my shoulders, and ask, 'so what?' None of this, nor indeed Hitler's enthusiasm, has any effect upon the greatness of Wagner's works, any more than the teachings of Calvin or John Paul II detract from the message of Christ. What it does influence, however, is the general public's understanding. What people who have never encountered the dramas themselves 'know' comes from pieces such as this, which in turn has consequences for funding and, in the notorious case of the State of Israel, de facto prohibition. Wagner deserves better, even if many of his descendants do not.

We were also treated to the bizarre rantings, unquestioned throughout, of Gottfried Wagner. One can only feel sorry for him on a personal level - or at least I can - but his claim that successive mayors of Bayreuth had banned him from the city was surely more than enough to discredit rumours of even relative sanity.

Watch instead the riveting Confessions of Winifred Wagner by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Give someone enough rope...


Gavin Plumley said...

I entirely agree Mark... though the mention of "the greatness of Wagner's works" with the "message of Christ" in the same sentence, while rhetorical powerful, may be going a little far. The problem with arts programming (what little of it there is... and fading) is that biographical analysis is the rage and scurrilous nonsense de rigeur. In this particular case, however, it has the potential to be remarkably damaging. What thinkest thou of THE WAGNER CLAN, which I haven't read?

Mark Berry said...

I haven't yet read 'The Wagner Clan'. I suppose I should at some point, but cannot summon up any great enthusiasm to read more about that bunch. However, I suspect it must be a better bet than a programme such as this. I certainly found Jonathan Carr thoughtful and engaging in our correspondence.

As for arts programming, I wonder whether it is worth having it at all, if this is what we end up with. Of course, that should not be the choice: there should be intelligent programming, some more suited to those for whom a subject is more or less new, some more suited to those more knowledgeable. I really cannot see why this should be a problem, but it is.

And if not everything is 'accessible' to everyone, then why should that matter? When I fail to understand something, whatever the subject, I don't necessarily think that the shortcoming must lie with the material rather than with me; that can often act as a spur to discovery, so that next time one might fail better.

inter mezzo said...

I have to agree – an appalling waste of time that discredits not just arts programming, but the whole documentary genre.

Like many contemporary film makers (Michael Moore comes to mind), Palmer’s mission is not to tell the truth, but to right perceived wrongs. And that approach can produce fine work in the hands of a talented film maker, even if it’s not ‘balanced’ in a scholarly sense. The problem with this film is that Palmer is not quite sure what’s wrong, nor how to put it right - just which team he’s batting for. No wonder the results are rambling, muddled and inconclusive.

The saddest thing about it is that, like a WAG modelling a designer dress, it undermines the cause it purports to serve. Few for example are better placed to put the case for opening the sealed Wagner archives than Brigitte Hamann, who wrote a meticulously-detailed and remarkably even-handed biography of Winifred Wagner, lacking only in the insights that Winifred’s locked-away correspondence with Hitler might have provided. Yet Palmer restricts her screen time to some bitchy gossip about Wolfgang Wagner’s wife. And picking on Katharina Wagner, who didn’t choose her parents, is not just petty and cruel, it distracts from the real target.

And I concur with your Syberberg recommendation – one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made. Though to be honest almost anything would be an improvement on Palmer’s hour of incoherent axe-grinding.

Anonymous said...

Proof yet again that the 'South Bank Show' can murder any good subject ! Being an ardent Wagner fan I was really looking forward to watching the programme but I should have known better ! Total rubbish - boring, confusing, predictable.

Dr. Woods said...

"rambling, muddled and inconclusive." trawled from one of the responses above well identifies the all too common expectation of the all too numerous complacent that documentaries should spin unambiguous simplicities from history so that we can move forward unhampered by any nagging uncertainties in the past. Whereas the mature documentarist shapes what her material can support, assumes a level of informed concern among the elite few who still watch the tube for information, and does his best to expose the known and the new dispationately, and perhaps to impose, on occasion, through emphasis and style, a degree of self-expression when that can illuminate the material.
On a personal level I noticed that a DAVID HUGHES has the editing credit in Mr. PALMER's film. Some good work there too.