The Wagner Files is a gauche and predictable documentary
Featuring Samuel Finzi and Pegah Ferydoni. In English and German, with English subtitles. Unrated.
Much as we’d like to see the LAPD reopen its files on the watery death of Natalie Wood, The Wagner Files deals with an equally tawdry kind of pop-culture drama. Ralf Pleger’s oddball documentary, made for German TV, does this by presenting itself as an “interactive multimedia” approach to the music and life of Richard Wagner.
“He’s one of the first great European composers,” insists one on-camera expert, forgetting Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart for the moment. A liar, cheat, and opportunist who ran far to keep ahead of creditors, the anarchic Wagner could be monarchistic, as when he found a champion in Bavaria’s teenage King Ludwig, whose career he helped destroy. He dumped his first wife to be with the similarly driven Cosima, illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and temporarily married to close friend and conductor Hans von Bülow.
In gauchely art-directed set pieces, Cosima is portrayed by Iranian beauty Pegah Ferydoni. And Wagner is round-faced Samuel Finzi, who crossed paths with the cracked composer while playing the mad king’s slavishly loyal valet in the recent Ludwig II. The actors travel in cars down modern city streets, smoke cigars, and chat on 1930s phones, all while Wagner constructs the dense masterworks he deemed “artistic terrorism”.
There are also old photos, new interviews, fake headlines, snippets of Ring Cycle performance footage, and cartoons from the graphic novel at the core of an iPad version of The Wagner Files. The film is strikingly predictable at times, though, with sun breaking through clouds over the Alps during the climactic “Liebestod” section of Tristan und Isolde. Seriously?
Few composers, of course, justify this kitschy pastiche better than Wagner, a macho bully obsessed with pink silk and perfume. Factor in his violent anti-Semitism, depicted here with brutal honesty, and no wonder he attracted such unsavoury followers. By the way, the English narrator always refers to him as “Wagner”, with a soft W. I thought of Robert whenever she said it.