Wagner’s Jews

, 2013

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“This film brings to light new insights into this topic, and manages to be – for all its laconic brevity – incredibly complex. Hilan Warshaw is a musician, a violinist. Perhaps that is why he possesses this ability to work virtually polyphonically, pursuing many different voices and balancing contradictions, without once taking the floor himself at all.”
– Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

This is an intriguing biopic about the German composer Richard Wagner and his Jewish colleagues. Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic, and his writings about Jews were later embraced by Hitler and other Nazis. But running parallel to this truth there is another, lesser-known side to Wagners relationship to the Jewish people. For years, many of Wagner’s closest associates were Jews – young musicians who became personally devoted to him, and who helped him in his work and career. These included the teenage piano prodigy Carl Tausig; Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son who conducted the premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal; Angelo Neumann, who produced Wagner’s works throughout Europe; and Joseph Rubinstein, a pianist who lived with the Wagner family for years and committed suicide when Wagner died. Even as Wagner called for the elimination of the Jews from German life, many of his most active supporters were Jewish.

Who were they? What drew them to Wagner and him to them? These questions are at the heart of Hilan Warshaw’s documentary, the first film to focus on Wagner’s complex personal relationships with Jews.

Filmed in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, Wagner’s Jews tells the remarkable stories of these complicated relationships through archival sources, visual re-enactments, interviews, and performances of original musical works by Wagner’s Jewish colleagues – the first such performances to be seen on film. As well as this historical narrative, the film explores the ongoing controversy regarding performing Wagner’s music in Israel. In a different form, the questions dividing Wagner’s Jewish acquaintances still resonate today: is it possible to separate artworks from the hatreds of their creator? Can art transcend prejudice and bigotry, and the weight of history?

55 min / English

Director — Hilan Warshaw