Byline: Barry Millington
RICHARD Wagner has often been described as a colossus who bestrode the 19th century. But the composer's shadow loomed ominously over the 20th century, too, and shows little sign of retreating even now. For decades his descendants have been squabbling publicly over his legacy, in particular the succession to the festival at Bayreuth, in northern Bavaria, which he founded for the exclusive performance of his operas. A film by director Tony Palmer, known for his controversial music documentaries and composer portraits, is set to open the last ever series of The South Bank Show on Sunday and throws intriguing new light on the long-running Wagner family saga.
Palmer's film, a muscle-flexer for a larger project he is planning on the same subject, combines archive footage and interviews with whole regiments of disaffected great-grandchildren, all venting their internecine spleen against the Bayreuth Festival and Katharina and Eva Wagner, its current directors. Even the initiated may be confused by the operatic complexity of the relationships but perhaps that in itself is telling: the sheer bile pouring out of so many Wagnerian mouths says everything about the poisoned chalice that is the legacy of the genius who started it all.
Palmer's chief witness is Gottfried Wagner, son of Richard's grandson Wolfgang who, until the announcement of his retirement last year, ruled despotically over the festival (initially with his brother Wieland) from its reopening after the Second World War in 1951.
Post-war New Bayreuth, Gottfried claims, was built on lies and falsification: both Wolfgang and Wieland had been much closer to Hitler than has been admitted and the archives of the Richard Wagner Foundation to this day have never been fully opened to public scrutiny.
The charges carry weight. It has long been known that Wagner's works were an inspiration to Hitler, for whom the Bayreuth Festival was emblematic of Germany's cultural heritage. Once in power, he did everything he could to back the festival, regarding it as central to his mission. Before the war, he would visit the Wagners at their family home in Bayreuth, often at the dead of night, thrilling the children with bedtime stories (the Tales of the Brothers Grimm were particular favourites). But the truth about how loyal Wolfgang and Wieland remained to the Fuhrer as young men in the final years of the war has been harder to ascertain.
Wieland was employed during the war by his brother-in-law, a Nazi sympathiser called Bodo Lafferentz, at an Institute for Physical Research in Bayreuth. The institute was an offshoot of the concentration camp at Flossenburg, near the Czech border, and it was there that an improved system of guiding the V-1 flying bombs (part of Hitler's drive to produce a "miracle weapon") was being developed. The enforced labourers, many of whom were skilled scientists, were not inhumanely treated and the jury is still out on whether Wieland was effectively the institute's deputy, or whether he was simply, as a budding theatre designer, constructing stage models and working out lighting systems for them, as Lafferentz claimed in a 1971 biography of Wieland by Geoffrey Skelton.
These revelations about Wieland's wartime experiences are not new: the story broke in the German press six years ago. Gottfried's accusation, however, is that all this, along with much more, was for decades swept under the carpet. He blames his father, Wolfgang, not for the misdemeanours of his youth but for failing to own up and apologise in later life.
A fair point, one might think, except that a daughter of Wieland, called Daphne, pops up later in the film to excoriate Wolfgang for allowing information about the institute to get into the public domain. The man is damned either way but other charges against him do stack up. According to Nike, another daughter of Wieland, Wolfgang ruthlessly destroyed Wieland's scenery, models and correspondence with artists after his death, sacking festival staff loyal to Wieland, all with a view to making himself the new master of Bayreuth and erasing Wieland from the records. …