Wagner and Cinema - a review (with an extensive preview)

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 2 October 2012 | 6:40:00 am

While published two years ago, we found little of the usual media covered or reviewed this book - but since when is that anything new with anything outside of the "ordinary"? So in attempt to rectify this, we reprint a review below from the online film journal : Screening The Past (follow the link below to visit or read the journal). We have also embedded a Google preview of the book below - so that you might make some conclusions of your own.

Wagner and Cinema

Edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman
Foreword by Tony Palmer
Interview with Bill Viola
Indiana University Press, 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0-253-22163-6504pp
(Review copy supplied by Indiana University Press)

The scholarly book Wagner and Cinema presents the reader with what is perhaps an uneven sequence of some very interesting writing. Edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman, Wagner and Cinema is not a book that is unified by a single author’s vision or perception but prefers to present a series of in-depth essays, which endeavour to address a critical understanding of Wagner’s relationship to film. While all of this book’s essays attempt this, a single first reading had, for me, begged the question of why should there be a need to create a study for uniting the influential German operatic composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) with cinema since an enormous amount of scholarship on the topic already exists. Yet, although the level of writing in Wagner and Cinema is of a fairly high academic standard, I felt whilst reading this large book (the book contains over 480 pages), that there was no central vision of the relation of Wagner to cinema, but only a series of unevenly run vignettes, which explore in different levels of depth, an analysis, which had often unfortunately seemed to camouflage, rather than clarify, Wagner’s relation to cinema. Because of this, some of the material discussed at times appears to veer away from the subject of Wagner and cinema covering much detail that would surround the various historical periods in which particular films were made through attempts to prove Wagner’s influence upon them. Therefore, one had the feeling that the book is sometimes a vehicle for numerous ideas outside Wagner and the cinema, which sometimes results in an ‘ad hoc’ endeavour to link Wagner with cinema.

Wagner and Cinema’s first two essays—‘Wagnerian Motives: Narrative Integration and the Development of Silent Film Accompaniment 1903-1913’, and ‘Underscoring Drama-Picturing Music’, situated at the beginning, seemed a little too technical and obscure, and contrasted with the third essay—‘The Life and Works of Richard Wagner (1913): Beece, Froelich, and Messter’, which was more focused on its subject matter. Another essay ‘Wagner’s Influence on Gender Roles in Early Hollywood Film’ loosely laced the spirit of Wagner’s flavour, essence and relevance into the text. A little later in the book, the essay ‘The Penumbra of Wagner’s ‘Ombra in Two Science Fiction Films from 1951: The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still’ also only seemed to loosely link Wagner’s relation with cinema by repeatedly discussing selected music in certain films as being ‘Wagnerian’ or ‘like’ Wagner’s music. Additionally contributing to what I had felt, at times, were threads that were perhaps a bit ‘ad hoc’ in terms of some of the ways arguments were constructed in the book, is the essay titled ‘Hollywood’s German Fantasy: Ridley Scott’s Gladiator’. This essay stated that the music in Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000) sounds “like Wagner’s music”, and phrases such as “the idea bears resemblances to” and “evokes Wagner” appeared too frequently.

However, there is also much that is good in the book Wagner and Cinema. For example, Scott Paulin’s essay ‘Piercing Wagner: The Ring in Golden Earrings’ integrates the idea of Wagner’s relevance to cinema more convincingly than many of the other essays in the book. This is due to his more direct focus on how Richard Wagner’s operatic compositions infiltrated Hollywood cinema production, particularly in the 1930s, and 1940s. By carefully investigating the meaning of musical marches in cinema in relation to how Wagner’s marches were used in live political situations and performances in Germany, prior to their use in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, Paulin’s essay is more purely and specifically just about film and Wagner’s music, and his arguments (unlike some of the other essays in the book) do not seem to cast such a broad net of investigation over all the other subjects surrounding them. Yet, even while some of the essays presented in Wagner and Cinema, particularly prior to Paulin’s, do seem like forays or experiments for finding various way to discuss the composer Wagner in the context of cinema, even Paulin in his wisdom admits that Wagner’s connection to cinema is a bit thin and mostly surfaces via Nazism. In addition to Paulin’s essay, another interesting essay in the book is Jeremy Tambling’s ‘The Power of Emotion’, which begins by focusing on a discussion of Alexander Kluge’s 1983 film Die Macht der Gefuhle (The Power of Emotion) and argues for a more philosophical and associative approach to looking at Wagner, opera, cinema and emotion, rather than a narrative one. Other aspects relating to the idea of what can be called both ‘Wagnerian and cinematic’ are addressed in later parts of the book. Near the end of the book, speaking in an interview on video art, Bill Viola’s own words on the temporal and spatial programmatics in his own video artworks, and on Wagner, are often illuminating and help to balance the overall discussion occurring in the book from an artist’s more direct appreciation of Wagner. As a writer on both video art and film, I personally also found a discussion centering on the subject of Viola’s Wagner work The Tristan Project in a few essays of the book a good way to end Wagner and Cinema prior to Viola’s interview on the subject.


Although I felt that not all of Wagner and Cinema’s essays were successful, the book does present the reader with a strong and very varied attempt to discuss the relation between Wagner, opera and cinema and includes a vast array of densely detailed information covering large historical periods in many of its well-written essays.

Cyrus Manasseh,
University of New South Wales, Australia.


Originally published at Screening The Past