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 interview 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 …

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