Wagner’s Life on the Silent Silver Screen

Like the Dutchman’s ship, a relic of the past trailing innumerable questions in its wake, the 1912 silent film The Life of Richard Wagner flashed vividly on the screen at the Boston Public Library on Sunday, February 13, before disappearing once again to an uncertain fate.

Dr. Paul Fryer, lecturer in theater, film critic, and historian, introduced the film with information about its near-miraculous survival and the complete absence of supporting documentary material on the process of its production. Two innovative giants of early German cinema, Producer Oskar Messter and Director Carl Fröhlich, made an 80-minute feature-length “biopic,” of which 69 minutes survive without the original score. There was no involvement by the Wagner family beyond an exorbitant fee demanded for the use of Wagner’s music.

Giuseppe Becce, an Italian composer living in Berlin, was engaged to write a Wagner-free score and, due to an astonishing resemblance to the composer, was later tapped to play Wagner himself.

Production values, including sumptuous costumes and settings, innovative location shots, and special effects, denote money and care expended on the project. No shooting script survives to indicate the content of the missing minutes, but surely the absent Lohengrin and Wagner’s early years with Cosima were dealt with.

Or maybe not. Mathilde Wesendonck is bowdlerized into Wagner’s platonic muse, and Wagner hardly looks at women other than his two wives. Fryer suspects that Wagner’s seduction of Cosima and other racy details of his private life may have been suppressed, as Cosima was still alive and a major force on the German cultural scene.

The acting is surprisingly subtle for the period. Becce is quite eloquent as Wagner. Scenes of crisis revert to the more melodramatic acting style familiar from most early silent films. Re-creations of moments from Wagner’s pre-mieres are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire production. Done with period-specific re-creations of flat painted scenery and obviously theatrical costumes, they are acted in a style as close as we’ll probably ever get to what Wag-ner himself saw and asked of his singers onstage.

Sadly, projects like this one, as Dr. Fryer revealed, inspire little interest even from the niche audience of the Wagner obsessed. Nevertheless, although attendance on the 13th was sparse, appreciation was very high.