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Winnie’ and ‘Uncle Wolf’

Winifred Wagner

a film directed by Hans Jürgen Syberberg

The Wagner Family Albums

by Wolf Siegfried Wagner, translated by Susanne Flatauer
Thames and Hudson (London), 159 pp., £5.95

Richard Wagner in Bayreuth

by Hans Mayer, translated by Jack Zipes
Rizzoli International, 148 pp., $18.50

Wagner: A Documentary Study

edited by Herbert Barth, by Dietrich Mack, by Egon Voss, translated by P.R.J. Ford, by Mary Whittall
Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $37.50

Not “Winifred Wagner” but “Hitler and Bayreuth” would have been a more appropriate title for Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s five-hour film interview1 with the widow of the composer’s only son Siegfried, the principal subject being not so much the lady herself as her relationship to the Führer during his long involvement with Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth. In 1947 a de-Nazification court convicted Winifred of collaboration and forbade her to make public statements; hence this film violates the ruling and breaks a silence of three decades.

Cosima Wagner, the composer’s wife, outlived him by forty-seven years, and for nearly half of this time directed the Bayreuth Festival that she had revived after his death (1883). Her daughter-in-law, the English-born Winifred Williams, succeeded as director for fourteen more years (1931-1944) of the forty-seven by which she has survived Cosima. Neither woman was qualified by experience or talents to undertake the festival’s artistic control, though obviously Cosima had the stronger mandate. Siegfried Wagner was nominally in charge during his mother’s dotage, but from 1914 through 1924 the festival was suspended, and in the later 1920s (Siegfried died in the same year as his mother, 1930) Winifred’s influence seems to have been predominant. The present director, her son, Wolfgang, is married to a woman of scarcely half his age, which would have seemed to guarantee matrilineal rule for at least another generation, except that in 1973 the Bavarian government purchased the Festspielhaus, the family home (Villa Wahnfried), the Wagner Archives, and assumed major responsibility for the festival.

A two-hour version of Winifred Wagner, condensed from the original and given English titles, is still so tedious that the prospect of having to see the film in its full Wagnerian dimensions makes one disregard the critics who claim that abridgment means falsification. Ironically, Syberberg’s high-minded conditions are themselves partly responsible for the monotony. The camera focuses unrelentingly, and with no pictorial supplementation, on the festival’s seventy-eight-year-old former mistress. And instead of following a logical plan of organization—by subject matter, since the same themes disappear and reappear—the film rigidly adheres to the chronology of the five days during which the taping took place.

Clearly Syberberg’s aim was to achieve maximum authenticity and candor, but this purpose is defeated by his own tendentious questions and by a moralistic commentary, larded with quotations from, among others, Walter Benjamin, Egon Friedell, Thomas Mann, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, that makes the viewer squirm. At the end, a smiling Herr Syberberg and contented Frau Wagner pose together, signifying that the presentation bears her seal of approval. Yet the film deserves an X-rating, as do all such that lay claim to complete veracity but that, by their very nature, cannot escape the biases of the director.

Despite Syberberg’s good intentions and Frau Wagner’s sanction, she was nonetheless exploited. For one thing, the filming process at times confuses her. “Imagine keeping those things running like that,” she exclaims, indicating the camera and recording equipment, and, once, as if to herself, “I would not say this in public.” An inexperienced speaker, especially during a lengthy interview, tends to forget circumstances and to be carried away by a subject. But apart from this, Frau Wagner’s life has been so confined to the inbred enclave of Bayreuth—in which, moreover, she reigned supreme for so long—that her views lack perspective.

She is oblivious not only to differing and opposing opinions but also to the outside world. And while not unaware of criticisms of her autocratic management of the festival, and of her flaunting of the friendship with Hitler—“We old Nazis” is one of her favorite locutions—she unquestionably feels that her conduct in both capacities was justified, and that she is not without sympathizers. Though momentarily bewildered by the filming, more often she is consciously appealing to posterity, using the arguments that she was never a political person, and that what Hitler did elsewhere was none of her business. “What was going on in the world did not concern me,” she says, bringing to mind a comment by a young German woman in Marcel Ophuls’s Memory of Justice: “They deliberately did not try to find out.”

Yet the “defendant’s” position is unfair, if only because the course of the interview is directed by the “prosecutor’s” questions, while the commentary looks down on the scene in undisputed judgment. Nor do Syberberg’s trappings of “fidelity”—the inadequate lighting, the poor sound, the black-and-white film, the absence of make-up and décors—compensate for the stacked philosophy of the format. These artifices of naturalness might better have been abandoned for a quality of technical realization and such other alleviating devices as the showing of stills of events and people mentioned by Frau Wagner. A variety of background and some relief from the concentration on her stony face might also have made the film more palatable for its inevitable educational TV audience.

The preservation of the recorded order of the interviews is obstructively pedantic, Frau Wagner’s own time sense being vague and sketchy, while few of her answers depend on sequence or large contexts. When asked for her evaluation of Gustav Mahler—a loaded question, political rather than musical, being wholly unspecific—she strays into an anecdote about a dinner with Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, quoting a joke by Siegfried Wagner about the paternity of Alma’s new baby. But either this child was Manon Gropius, born two years before Werfel became Alma’s consort, in which case Winifred’s memory was faulty, or else the child was Werfel’s premature and short-lived son, in which case Siegfried’s tasteless witticism might have been deleted. Or would such tampering destroy documentary validity?

For two hours, and at wart-close range, the camera follows the elderly but robust woman, always alone, usually in an armchair but occasionally standing, once at a desk typing with two fingers, once eating lunch. Her most conspicuous feature is a jutting jaw, emphasized by erect posture and backward titled head. Her manner is direct, blunt, and, when speaking of Jews, servants, and all social “inferiors” (a not inconsiderable percentage of the population), insensitive to a scarcely credible degree. The voice is husky and she coughs frequently, but the speech, despite her English upbringing, is without accent. She laughs—at some of Syberberg’s questions, at the thought of the “childishness” of such artists as Toscanini—but the audience is amused only once, by her story that after the war she and her friends changed their code name for Hitler from “Wolf” to “USA.” The touchiest subjects fail to ruffle her, though she is often stumped for an expression or a way of approach. True to his veristic guidelines, Syberberg does not interrupt, kibitz, correct.

But there is no respite from the woman’s dogmatic pronouncements, class and race prejudice, and consuming self-righteousness. She even sees Hitler—“warm blue-eyed,” “kind,” “considerate”—only in relation to herself, and when pressed to reconcile these impressions of him with the atrocities of the concentration camps and the realities of the Final Solution, she offhandedly contends that “such things did not come from him but from Streicher and Bormann.” Indeed, Uncle Wolf’s greatest shortcoming was that “he was too easily influenced by such people.” According to Winnie, in fact, Uncle Wolf scarcely appears to have been “anti-Semitic” at all, and

thanks to his protection, Jewish artists, and the Jewish wives and husbands of Aryan ones, were allowed to participate in the festival even in the late nineteen-thirties.

At this point the commentary contradicts her with a horrifying selection from Hitler’s own writings on the subject.

Adolf Hitler’s spell over Winifred Wagner was cast in the early 1920s. On his first visit to Bayreuth, in 1923, she recalls that

he visited the Master’s grave alone, and came back in a state of great emotion saying that “Out of Parsifal I make a religion.”

While Hitler was in prison she brought food to him, not to mention the paper on which he wrote a bestseller, and she invited him to the festival as far back as 1925, when his presence could have had disastrous consequences. These actions alone would seem to indicate what the film bears out: that her interest in him was not primarily for his potential political power, convinced disciple though she was in that sense, but rather that she was in love with him. She is proud and pleased, at any rate, when Syberberg asks about the rumors of a Winnie-Wolf marriage, but she is quick to dispose of a question—thereby suggesting that it might be a painful one—whether Hitler refrained out of personal considerations for her from ever mentioning Eva Braun. Winnie boasts that Wolf was “a member of the family,” an “uncle” to her children—whom he sometimes helped to put to bed at night—and that he stayed in her home. She adds that despite his phobia about women drivers he allowed her to chauffeur him, and that few of her requests were not granted, even during the darkest days of the war. Over and above his dedication to Wagner, it seems indisputable that Hitler came to Bayreuth to see her.

Regrettably, therefore, the film misses an opportunity to fill out the private portrait of Hitler that an expert questioner might have extracted from Winifred Wagner, for it is unlikely that any other living woman knew him so intimately and over so long a period (1923-1945). Although she did not see him after the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, they continued to communicate, and she was able to recognize when his dosages of antidepressant drugs had been increased. The latter point is an example of an unexplored detail, since it is obvious that she must know more about the subject than appears in her passing reference to it in the film.

But Syberberg fails even to pursue the question of Hitler’s musicality, which grew in interest after the war when Heinz Tietjen, Bayreuth’s one-time music director, testified that the Führer once complained to him, correctly, that the oboes had played wrong notes (which Richard Strauss, who was conducting, overlooked). When Winnie talks about Uncle Wolf’s piano playing, the audience wants to know just how good it was, as well as what music, other than Wagner’s, Hitler may have known and liked—something being indicated about a man who is enthralled by Wagner but perhaps not by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. We would also like to know whether Hitler (perish the thought) could sing—anything, that is, besides Deutschland über Alles—for if he really were exceptionally musical, perhaps new personality tests and some surveillance should be introduced into our conservatories.

In sum, the film reveals how much closer was Hitler’s relationship with Winifred Wagner and her family than had previously been known, and how much more profound his association with Bayreuth. In fact, Winnie’s son-in-law was the director of the Kraft durch Freude organization which bought up most of the seats during the war and partly filled them with wounded and furloughed soldiers—a sadistic form of rest and recreation, as might appear to some. Near the end of the film Winnie answers the question, “Was Hitler a curse on Wagner and Bayreuth?” with “Exactly the contrary”; and undoubtedly she believes in his eventual exoneration, and her own. But when she confesses that “If Hitler were to come through that door, I would be as happy to see him as ever,” the feeling is personal, all the more strikingly so because of the absence of emotion during most of the interview.

Following the recent reversal of literary genres, the film has been made into a book, and the script should soon be available. Meanwhile, the history of the Wagner dynasty in Bayreuth may be studied in three new volumes of pictures. One of these, The Wagner Family Albums, a collection of private photographs, includes views of Hitler with Winifred, and of Hitler with her children. Another, Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, is misleadingly titled, little of the book being devoted to the composer and most of it to his heirs and their supervision of the festival. (A reason for the brevity of the section on Wagner may be the imminent publication of the second part of Cosima Wagner’s Diaries,2 which center on the Bayreuth period 1878-1882.) The text, by Hans Mayer, is as intelligent and fair in its analyses of people and events as any that the reader is likely to encounter on the subject, yet silly remarks occur, such as that Siegfried Wagner

showed a new, freer disposition. The trauma seemed to abate. He died because of this.

Could Siegfried live only when traumatized? And what is the meaning of

Siegfried Wagner died during the Bayreuth Festival. It was but one of the many ironic setbacks in this seemingly happy and successful life….

Admittedly death is something of a “setback,” but Siegfried’s life, on the contrary, must have been profoundly sad, and he was one of the least successful composers of his time.

The documentation by Gottfried Wagner, one of Richard’s eleven great-grandchildren, contains new information, but the sources are not identified beyond “The Wagner Archives,” and no dates are given for most of the photographs, the choice of which, furthermore, is peculiar. Thus one chapter begins with a reference to the well-known portrait of the loving Cosima looking up into the reciprocating Richard’s eyes, yet this picture is nowhere to be found in the book, while the one facing the verbal description is of the widow in old age. Then, too, apart from the cover, only three portraits are offered of Wagner himself: seated, with demonic upward gaze; with his right hand on the shoulder of his young son; and in a Villa Wahnfried “Royal Family” group portrait, in which King Richard, wearing a widebrimmed summer hat, looks like a diminutive John Wayne. The book does not contain any photographs of Hitler, but Mayer quotes passages from recent publications as evidence that “the new Bayreuth” is by no means de-Nazified. W. Schüler’s Der Bayreuther Kreis (1971), for instance, praises Julius Kniese—Cosima’s assistant and Siegfried’s teacher—for his “rigorous anti-Semiticism [sic],” while a 1969 biography of Wagner’s son actually reproaches Malwida von Meysenbug for her

lack of racist instincts in contrast to the convinced anti-Semite, Siegfried Wagner.

The illustrations that comprise the first half of Wagner: A Documentary Study include a generous number in color, of manuscripts, programs, costume designs, paintings, the places and theaters in which the composer lived and worked. The second half of the book is an anthology of writings both by and about the composer chosen by three eminent Wagner scholars. Much less satisfactory is the preface, “Divergences: The Man and His Work,” by that more recent arrival among Wagner ideologues and apologists, Pierre Boulez. In an earlier essay, “Approaches to Wagner,”3 Boulez expediently avoided any mention of the composer’s controversial doctrines. That subject should have been sidestepped again this time. In any case, readers will be astonished to learn from Boulez that, for example, Wagner was “a committed Christian,” and that

…Wagner, steeped in the romantic idealism of medieval myths, adds to the political and cultural reaction of the nineteenth century the prejudices of a militant Christian.

The notion of Wagner acting out of Christian belief and principle is patently ridiculous, nor was his anti-Semitism religiously motivated, the earlier brand having been chiefly of the paranoid and scapegoating kind, the later based on quack anthropology such as Gobineau’s Essay on the Inequality of Races. Certainly neither manifestation deserves to be dignified by Boulez’s term “concept”:

Wagner does represent an amalgam of concepts on which it was only too easy to draw in order to label him the leader of a particularly vicious crusade.

So it was Wagner, not “the Jews,”4 who was maligned and victimized.

No less preposterous is the remark that

…a series of misunderstandings converts [Wagner’s] work into a narrow-minded symbol of nationalism and racism….

But no conversion was possible since the nationalism and racism were already plainly there, even for the broadest minds. The further statement that

…political ideology took hold of Wagner’s work and raised it by force as its own banner

implies, of course, that no kindred spirit existed in Parsifal or in the composer’s contemporaneous writings, such as Religion and Art, some of whose tenets, as Walter Kaufmann noted, Hitler was later to enforce by law.

Many of Boulez’s comments on the artistic aspects of Wagner’s world are also puzzling, but, for only one example, Boulez deplores that

As for architecture, the model of Bayreuth has remained a dead letter—we still live with the Italian style theater…in which…the singer’s voice attempts to penetrate the wall of sound raised before it….

Which “wall of sound”? Mozart’s? Verdi’s? Would the acoustical balances and orchestral-vocal rapport of Figaro or Falstaff benefit from such subterranean structures as that of Bayreuth?

Incomparably superior to this preface is Boulez’s more recent Wagner essay, “Time Re-Explored.”5 This deserves to be widely read,6 not only for its insights but also as a measure of the evolution of Boulez’s own views on music. First, however, it must be said that the “re-exploration of time” is simply the familiar idea of a “dialectic” between “the opposition of chromatic and diatonic,” which are respectively identified with “fluid and rigid time.” Wagner’s “re-exploration” is merely a vast enlargement of scale, the principle being as old as the early sixteenth century, thereafter rapidly becoming conventionalized. For the rest, some of Boulez’s speculations are brilliant, some are highly debatable, and a few are specious, as when he says that

Wagner has extended the limits of variation well beyond even that which he found in Beethoven.

Obviously Boulez continues to believe that changes in style—though he would not agree that these are such—can be explained as progress.

This new article on Wagner also reveals that Boulez has not changed his mind about the separation of the ideology from the music:

In that Europe of Marx and Engels where Wagner had hoped to play an ideological part, he did not cut a very brilliant figure; but the dramaturge, the musician Wagner offers a perpetual denial of Wagner the ideologist: on that plane he is, and remains unrivalled and completely subversive. It is not at all surprising that two Jews, Mahler and Schönberg, should be the most distinguished inheritors of the musical ideas of the most obtuse anti-semite; for his musical heritage remains the privilege of those who can understand it, grasp and absorb it, while his ideological legacy went to Wolzogen and Chamberlain and—subsequent to their insipidity—was adopted by a political power, by no means insipid, which made use of the musical testimony as well as the ideological ambiguity to camouflage its tyrannical brutality. The political power of the Nazis would have existed anyway, with or without music; like all such political powers they looked for intellectual justifications and tried to base the “Masterpieces of the national inheritance” on a certain historicity. In that case Wagner’s text offered itself as camouflage, but his music remained irrefrangible, and that is why his music still lives although his ideology is already no more than a document.

But surely the power of the ideology is in the music, which cannot be entirely dissociated from the dramatic and verbal meaning. If the ideology of Parsifal is pernicious, so, too, in some degree, is the music, which is not to deny its greatness.

* * *

[He] considered himself a genius. He was [a leader], and he believed that by virtue of his special gifts he could command subordination and allegiance. He considered himself removed from the realm of rational criticism by reason of his self-appreciation.

Thus Walter Scheel, President of the Bundesrepublik, in a speech inaugurating the Bayreuth Festival of 1976. Was he referring to Richard Wagner or to Adolf Hitler? It was to the latter, in fact, which contradicts the President’s further claim—the fallacy of most apologias for Wagner vis-à-vis Hitler—that it was hardly Wagner’s fault that Hitler liked him. Yet to some extent it was Wagner’s fault, so long as things equal to the same thing are also equal to each other. And there is truth in Satie’s bon mot on being told that Ravel had refused the legion of honor: “But he should not have done anything to deserve it.” To name only one of the charges against Wagner’s operas, they are guilty of glorifying nationalism and the power of arms.

Like Wagner’s grand- and great-grandchildren, Scheel hopes to de-Nazify the festival. Yet it is doubtful that this can be done. On the other hand, Winnie’s pro-Nazi confessions could conceivably save Bayreuth. The film unleashed an unexpected reaction among German audiences, some of whom admired her honesty in saying what she and many of them felt, preferring her forthrightness to the rationalizations and ambiguities of the politicians and “intelligentsia.” As an instance of this, Syberberg concludes his sermon: “It is easy not to be a Nazi when no Hitler is around.”

Winifred Wagner’s continuing loyalty to Hitler is totally misplaced, of course, as well as evidence of a seemingly unbalanced mind, otherwise the revelations of 1945 would have compelled her to deplore her former blindness. Yet by exposing Bayreuth as the spiritual center of Nazism, her interview invalidates the argument that Wagnerism and its unfortunate heritage are “divergences.” The moral of the film is that the wisest course would be to tell the whole truth and to acknowledge that even the worst of it is an integral part of Bayreuth history. Men and institutions carry the past with them, after all, and to pretend that it is possible to make a new start which is not laid on old foundation is foolish. The acceptance of the full story might at last afford an objective view, and perhaps even turn Bayreuth’s oppressive and uncritical worship into free and intelligent appreciation.

  1. 1

    Made in April 1975 and first shown at the Cinémathèque in Paris the following autumn.

  2. 2

    Die Tagebücher I: 1869-1877. Munich-Zürich, R. Piper (1101 pp., exclusive of editorial notes). An English-language edition has been announced by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

  3. 3

    Parsifal album notes, CBS records, 1971.

  4. 4

    A “Letter from Bayreuth,” published in The New Yorker, September 27, 1976, claims that “Wagner himself hired the brilliant Hermann Levi, a Jew, to conduct the première of Parsifal….” In truth, it was King Ludwig who insisted on Levi against Wagner’s wishes and who would not permit the Munich orchestra to appear in Bayreuth without the Munich conductor. Wagner, for his part, expressed empathic anxiety feelings for anyone having to work under Levi: “[R] remarked to me privately that if he were playing in the orchestra he wouldn’t like to be directed by a Jew.” (From Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, July 22, 1882.)

  5. 5

    Published in the Bayreuth Festival Program Book, 1976.

  6. 6

    It is almost unreadable, however, a more clotted, opaque prose being difficult to imagine. Paragraphs, which Boulez does not seem to regard as divisions in the development of his argument, continue for pages and average about 2,000 words. Also, almost every sentence is run-on—kept going, so the author must believe, by adding colons and semi-colons. But an even worse impediment is Boulez’s habit of burying commonplaces in verbal complexities. Thus he writes, “The metamorphoses [of Wagner’s motifs] in time depend principally on the moments at which they are employed and on the means of the expression of that particular moment” (i.e., the composer transforms his motif according to the context). But what can possibly be understood by, “A direct and ineffective proselytism, transmitted by inadequate means can manifest itself as being thoroughly reactionary”?

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