One of the most intriguing titles in the Los Angeles Film Festival this year was The Life of Richard Wagner (1913), possibly the very first feature-length biopic, directed by Carl Froelich who’d go on to make the first German sound film Die Nacht gehört uns; produced by OskarMesster, a towering figure in production and innovation in early German cinema who built the country’s first studio; and starring Guiseppe Becce, who became one of the first (and most prolific) composers working specifically for film (Caligari, Der müde Tod, Der letzte Mann).
The restorer of the film, Dr Paul Fryer, was too ill to attend the Q&A which was a shame, since it would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on how far the present artifact resembles the original film and its construction (no shooting script exists, although only about 10 minutes are missing from the originally recorded 80-minute running time).
As it stands, the film is a brisk trot through the composer’s life, the story told largely through intertitles interspersed with brief scenes, often static and unillustrative, though occasionally enlivened by interesting points of view at the opera or a reasonably exciting depiction of 1848 street riots as he ranges across Europe to escape creditors and political enemies. Spatterings of trick photography amuse for a while, though their effect wears thin by the time characters from his work pop up in Wagner’s study. Worst of all, however, and not even to be excused by the relative primitiveness of cinema at the time, we get almost no hint of the man’s inner life, his drive to create, his inspirations and his torments (beyond the fact that he is frequently poor and sometimes cold) and his messy personal life is summarily whitewashed. Fryer describes it as “an extraordinarily complex, detailed and sophisticated film for its time”, which is not without a grain of truth, but little more than a grain.
For all its historical significance, this was not a distinguished piece of cinema, with little to do with art or music, its greatest virtue being as a quick run-through of the events of Wagner’s life. Its deficiencies are compounded, however, by the current presentation. This appears to be less a restoration than a reconstruction: the DVD projected looked like a bad VHS dub, blurry with murky detail and eye-watering amounts of burning highlights, and inter-titles that were frequently too fuzzy, small or swift to read.
The worst offender, however, is the specially commissioned music. Billed as an orchestral score it sounded suspiciously 100% synth-created, which would be perfectly alright if it didn’t simply smother the film like a drab wallpaper – if ever a silent movie called out for a ring-a-ding score it is this one, not least to cover the deficiencies and lack of emotional punch in the original film-making. It’s one of those sad situations that makes one relieved that there are people out there attending to such films as this that would otherwise teeter on oblivion, and deeply frustrated and angered that their rejuvenation should be executed in so ham-fisted a fashion. I’m not surprised Fryer cried off.