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Music: To Kill and To Save
Image: Wavelength Films

"Music can change the world," Bono once said, "because it can change people."

No one would dispute his claim. Music's power to soothe, to inspire, even to motivate one to great things is well chronicled through the ages. Nor, on the other hand, is there little argument about music's ability to provoke, to rile, even to stir up trouble.

But to kill? Maybe.

Two compelling new documentaries examine music's role—for good and for evil—during the rise of the Third Reich. One, Wagner & Me, explores how the great German composer's works may have played a part in Hitler's anti-Semitism and the advent of Nazism. The other, Orchestra of Exiles, tells almost the opposite tale—how music was used for the greatest good, sparing the lives of almost 1,000 Jews just as the Holocaust was about to begin.

Both are new releases from First Run Features, long one of my favorite sources for fascinating and often daring documentaries on a wide variety of topics. Wagner & Me and Orchestra of Exiles are now available at First Run's website.

And both fully bear witness to the gut-wrenching truth of Bono's quote, that music can—and often does, as history bears out—change the world. For better or for worse.

Near the beginning of Wagner & Me, host and narrator Stephen Fry describes his lifelong love of music: "[It has] always made me do things inside. It's released forces within me. And no music has done it like Wagner's."

Hitler may well have said the same, especially the part about it "releasing forces within me." (Several decades later, Tom Waits would say, "I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things," but I don't think he was channeling Hitler.) Fry, who is Jewish, explores the connection between Wagner's music and Hitler's worldview, and how the former may have influenced the latter . . . and, of course, the atrocities that followed.

Stephen Fry listens to a performance of Wagner's Trüume at the Villa Wesendonck in Zurich, Switzerland, as seen in WAGNER AND ME. Image: Wavelength Films

Stephen Fry listens to a performance of Wagner's Trüume at the Villa Wesendonck in Zurich, Switzerland, as seen in WAGNER AND ME.

Fry, a lifelong Wagner aficionado, takes us on what amounts to an educational travelogue with the 19th century composer. The film begins and ends in Bayreuth, Germany, where Wagner had a custom opera house built in his later years (and where his epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, aka The Ring Cycle, was first performed in 1876) and where an annual Wagner festival is held to this day. Fry follows Wagner from Germany to his 12-year exile in Switzerland (he was a wanted man for his role in a political uprising in Dresden), to Paris, to Russia, to his return to Germany and, ultimately, back to Bayreuth.

It's all sufficiently informative, an adequate primer on the life of the man. But the heart of the film belongs to Fry, his articulate wit and brilliance front and center. It's a joy to see him utterly rapturous as he listens to orchestras rehearse, to singers sing, and to a professional pianist playing portions of Tristan und Isolde. (When the pianist tells Fry to play the final note to end the marvelous piece, his finger misses by one key—and the result is both melodically disastrous and hilarious.)

Fry and the filmmakers seamlessly alternate between biographical bits, interviews, and sense of place, often with Wagner's music soaring in the background. But most compelling is Fry's own journey as he wrestles with the film's overriding and underlying question.

Can he—indeed, can any of us—separate Wagner's brilliant work from its apparent role in the rise of the Third Reich and the extermination of 6 million Jews?

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Music: To Kill and To Save