Wagner’s Jews

Produced, directed and written by Hilan Warshaw
In co-production with WDR/ARTE
Broadcasts on ARTE, WDR, PBS/Channel Thirteen, Deutsche Welle, Channel 8/Hot 3 (Israel), ORF (Austria), SVT (Sweden), Medici TV

The German opera composer Richard Wagner was notoriously anti-Semitic, and his writings on the Jews were later embraced by Hitler and the Nazis. But there is another, lesser-known side to this story. For years, many of Wagner’s closest associates were Jews— young musicians who became personally devoted to him, and provided crucial help to his work and career. They included the teenaged 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— as Wagner himself noted with surprise. 

Who were they? What brought them to Wagner, and what brought him to them? These questions are at the heart of Hilan Warshaw’s documentary WAGNER’S JEWS, the first film to focus on Wagner’s complex personal relationships with Jews. Filmed on location in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, WAGNER’S JEWS tells these remarkable stories through archival sources, visual re-enactments, interviews, and performances of original musical works by Wagner’s Jewish colleagues— the first such performances on film. 

Parallel to the historical narrative, the film explores the ongoing controversy over 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?

A partial list of experts and musicians interviewed in the film (in alphabetical order):

  • Yossi Beilin, Israeli politician and negotiator of the Oslo peace accords
  • Leon Botstein, President of Bard College; Conductor Laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra
  • John Louis DiGaetani, Wagner scholar
  • Asher Fisch, Israeli conductor
  • Robert Gutman, Musicologist and Wagner biographer
  • Uri Chanoch, Deputy Chairman, Central Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel
  • Jonathan Livny, President, Israel Wagner Society
  • Zubin Mehta, Music Director, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Dina Porat, Chief Historian, Yad Vashem; Professor, Tel Aviv University
  • Paul Lawrence Rose, Professor of European History and Jewish Studies, Pennsylvania State University
  • Jan Swafford, Brahms biographer

WAGNER’S JEWS was first broadcast in Europe on ARTE and WDR in 2013 to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, and has had multiple broadcasts on PBS/Channel Thirteen, Deutsche Welle, Israel’s Channel 8, and other international networks. The film has been screened at U.S. and international festivals and venues including Yale, Columbia, and Boston Universities, London’s Barbican Centre, Jewish Museum Vienna, the Wagner Society of New York, Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, National Arts Club, Goethe-Institut (Washington, D.C.), International Festival of Films on Art (Montréal), DocAviv- the Tel Aviv International Documentary Film Festival, the Jerusalem and Haifa Cinematheques (Israel), the Museum of the Land of Israel, Documentary Film Center (Germany), Musée Hector Berlioz (France), the Jewish International Film Festival (Australia), Royal Academy of Arts (Stockholm), and many others.

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