Wagner - the first biopic

The German composer Richard Wagner (right) is best known for his long and heady operas such as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde and the mammoth four-evening saga Der Ring des Nibelungen. However his personal life was fairly operatic: a troubled first marriage, involvement with an abortive revolution in Germany which caused him to flee the country and be exiled for many years: and then an affair with a married woman, Cosima von Bülow , with whom he had three children before eventually marrying her. In the end he was fortunate to gain the patronage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, which enabled to complete and stage his later operas.

He has been the subject of two fairly well-known biopics: Magic Fire (1955), a thoroughly Hollywoodized version in which he was played by Alan Badel (and in which the 15-hour Ring cycle was shrunk to 4 minutes): and the six-hour epic Wagner (1983) in which he was played by Richard Burton.

Now an earlier biopic - and one of the earliest of the genre - has emerged and was shown on Monday at the National Film Theatre: Richard Wagner, made in 1913. Wagner was played by Giuseppe Becce, himself a minor composer (who also provided the score, played live on the first showings), and the film was directed by Carl Froelich and William Wauer. Film grammar was still being developed when the film was made, and it follows the then usual practice of preceding each scene with a subtitle explaining what is to follow: the scenes are shot in long sections with a static camera and minimal, or sometimes no, cutting (and no dialogue subtitles): this makes it look a bit wooden to modern eyes, but it is well staged and constructed - and for the most part free of the over-acting common to many early films.

Becce gives a good performance, if rather unvaried (and not showing Wagner's drive and selfishness): he has a remarkable resemblance to Wagner. The early years are played as gentle comedy, but after that it sticks reasonably close to the facts - with some exceptions: Cosima is shown as having no relationship with Wagner until after her divorce from von Bülow (she was still alive when the film was made) - the three children are portrayed briefly, with the implication that they were born after her marriage to Wagner. The story goes through his friendship with King Ludwig (and the attempts to discredit him by jealous courtiers) and the building of Bayreuth: it ends with a touch of sentimentality as the apparitions of the characters in his operas appear at his grave in tribute to him.

The film - which was shown in an excellent and very clear tinted print - is a very creditable effort and stands up well: the NFT pianist, Costas Fotopoulos, deserves a special mention for his accompaniment, combining his own improvised music with the correct excerpts from Wagner during the portrayal of scenes from the operas.

Posted: Thu - October 4, 2007 at 10:19 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM