In 2006 I viewed a full-length silent film by German filmmaker Carl Frölich titled The Life and Works of Richard Wagner. It featured an astounding performance by actor/composer Giuseppe Becce. Now, praise the heavens, a version of the film has been released and is available for purchase on DVD.
The film had previously been shown at a film series at Lincoln Center in April 2006, and again in Los Agneles in 2010, and is a wonderful work on any of a variety of levels. First, it is one of the earliest full-length films of any kind, pre-dating D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation. Second, while certainly laudatory it depicts Wagner as a human being — tardy for his piano lessons, rather dismissive of Minna — and therefore it holds together as a film story. Third, it is a glimpse into the kind of opera staging (and style of acting) that prompted Wagner to do what he did — i.e., rebel against artificiality, playing to the audience, overt emotionalism, and so on.
Forth, Becce — the actor playing Wagner — is simply amazing. He has a focus on the “moment” and a concern for character relationships (rather than grandstanding) that make the role a triumphant success. It does no harm that Giuseppe Becce also is the absolute spitting image of the composer.
In the final scene, Wagner is lying in his bier and, one by one, the specters of Isolde, Tannhauser, Siegfried, Parsifal, Rienzi, Senta and others appear and give homage. It is not only impressive as a piece of early film making to tell a story; it is genuinely moving.
The release has its drawbacks however. It is not given its proper title, but rather called “Silent Wagner.” The company responsible is Isolde Films, which is one of the production companies of Tony Palmer, and there are several predictable and regretable lapses of taste. One of the early title cards reads, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds — Mark Twain.” Neither this title card, nor the name of the film, is in the original film and so one looks askance on the authenticity of the other title cards or of the film as a whole. The score that was written by Becce to accompany the film, is missing from this edition. (Information on the score is found here.) The DVD does not have the score that accompanied the Los Angeles viewing, either (written by Barry Seaman). That score also accompanied showings of the film at many venues, including at the Wagner Society of New York in 2005, but it is missing here.
There is also a noisome tone of simplistic sensationalism about the endeavor that is captured by a squib that Palmer wrote to appear on the inside of the DVD box, providing in part:
Starring Giuseppe Becce as the composer (he later became a distinguished composer himself for almost 100 talkies), and made when Wagner’s widow Cosima was still omnipotent in Germany, it raises the question for instance of who exactly was Wagner’s father? Was it Ludwig Geyer, the Jew?
The film of course raises no such question at all, and Palmer’s injection of such irrelevant speculation causes one to question the artistic integrity of the release. It was Palmer, of course, who was responsible for the amateurish and execrable 1982 biopic Wagner.
But you can turn off Palmer’s silly “commentary” and you can hope that all of the scenes from the original are there and that the title cards are not too severely Palmer-ized. And then you can simply have a blast. It is a wonderful film and a must-buy.