Images of fire dominate the nine-hour film epic, "Wagner," which opens an exclusive, limited run today in the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium. Real fires of war and metaphorical fires of passion; the fire in the Nibelungs' forges and the flames of Valhalla going up in smoke.
A central scene recurs almost obsessively in momentary flashbacks scattered throughout the film (as well as the two-hour videotape condensation this review was drawn from): the burning of the Dresden opera house during the abortive revolution of 1849. Wagner stands before the holocaust, not entirely unhappy at the sight, which is an emblem of his urge to destroy the traditional forms of opera.
Sometimes the movie's words -- drawn mostly from historic sources -- are as fiery as its visuals. Standing beside Wagner as the theater burns is a friend and fellow revolutionary, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. He is telling Wagner how to write the opera "Jesus of Nazareth," which the composer considered but never took very far: "Let the tenor sing 'Behead him!' and the soprano sing 'Hang him!' with the bass singing 'Fire! Fire!' "
Although they were loosely associated, Bakunin considered Wagner "an impractical dreamer," a shrewd assessment. The life chronicled in the film's sprawling bulk was largely one of grandiose fantasies -- impossible to fulfil until Wagner caught the attention of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who shared his dreams, supported him, and finally built his monumental opera house at Bayreuth.
During the revolution in Dresden, Wagner had proudly proclaimed: "I accept royal patronage no more. True patronage will come from the people of a united Germany." Fifteen years later, he was happy to accept the patronage of the craziest monarch in Europe. He rushed to Ludwig's court, bringing with him Cosima, the mother of his children. She was also the wife of conductor Hans von Bu low, Wagner's close friend, ardent admirer and finest interpreter -- a fact that embarrassed nearly everyone but Wagner. For Wagner, if not for von Bu low, the movie (and the life it chronicles) can be considered to have a happy ending.
Even with nine hours to fill, with Richard Burton in the title role, Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima and Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson in supporting roles, Wagner's life is not an easy story to tell. The problem is not lack of incidents, and certainly not lack of documentation; we probably know more about Wagner's character and daily life than is good for him or for us. The problem is to drum up some affection for the utterly self-centered, grossly prejudiced, unprincipled and manipulative genius who is the central character. In one of the last roles before his death, Burton hardly seems to try.
"I do believe that . . . I am soundly hated by the whole of Germany," Wagner remarks in one of his more perceptive moments. Elsewhere, he rasps out a shorter, more vigorous list of his enemies: "Jews, Sodomites . . . swine." If he sometimes sounds like Adolf Hitler (for example, when he is shouting "Germany must have its place in the sun"), it is not really an accident. Hitler's style was consciously and enthusiastically modeled on Wagner's.
"As a man," one of his numerous, fervent enemies remarks, "Herr Wagner does seem to leave a lot to be desired." The movie goes far beyond this fine bit of understatement. It is a conscientious, dedicated effort to present Wagner as he was -- and that may be its problem. The racism is there, the delusions of grandeur, the nihilism. Above all, the egocentricity, the refusal to see value in anything or anyone not immediately related to fulfilling his own needs. When poor von Bu low brings in some of his own compositions for the Master to examine, Wagner's voice fairly drips with scorn: "Piano compositions! You write piano pieces!" he snarls. "Bayreuth! Everything must relate to Bayreuth and what we are trying to do here! Piano pieces do not!"
Burton's health may already have been failing when "Wagner" was filmed. His portrayal is interesting but sometimes lacking in vigor. In fact, despite the stellar cast and the constant conflicts and intrigues, the production has a strangely listless air. Presumably, it was originally conceived as a series for public television, to run in 1983, the centennial of Wagner's death. Whether it missed the deadline or was rejected for other reasons, that occasion is past and there seems to be a problem of what to do with it. Although it may be intensely interesting to Wagnerians and valuable for those who want to learn the highlights of the composer's biography painlessly, it seems to have few commercial possibilities.
At the Smithsonian today, it is being run as a sort of marathon gala, stretching from noon to midnight. The performance is completely sold out -- a tribute to the fortitude of Washington's Wagner fans. Patrons (whose contributions will support the Smithsonian Associates' scholarship fund) will be given a "Bayreuth Buffet" during one of the three intermissions and a recording of Wagner selections conducted by Sir Georg Solti, whose conducting is also heard in the sound track. A second showing will be divided into three segments spread out over three days, starting at 7:30 on Monday and Tuesday, 7 on Wednesday. For those who wish to see it, this special showing may turn out to be the only opportunity.