There are arguably two reasons to see The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (full German title Winifried Wagner und die Geschichte des Hauses Wahnfried von 1914-1975). The obvious one is to hear testimony from a woman who knew Adolf Hitler intimately and who insists on describing him in positive terms fully aware of the horrors for which he was responsible. The second reason to watch is indirectly related to the first. At over five hours in length, Confessions is a test of how much of director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s unconventional technique we are willing to accept. That question relates to the film’s thematic focus, because Syberberg’s relentless method places demands on the viewer similar to those made by Hitler and Wagner.
The widow of Richard Wagner’s son, Siegfried, Winifred Wagner never met the composer whose ghost hovers over all the proceedings, but she did know his widow Cosima and eventually became director of the Bayreuth festival after her husband’s death. Through that responsibility, she became a good friend of Hitler, who was a regular visitor to the festival. Frau Wagner does not deny his crimes. But she insists that the Hitler she knew was a charming, intelligent, even warm person who viewed her and her relatives as a surrogate family with whom he could relax, not the monster that the world reviles. Fascinating at so many levels, including musical and theatrical history, her recollections open an abyss of unresolvable moral ambiguity.
Most of the five hours consists of little more than Frau Wagner talking to her interlocutor. In grainy black-and-white, often with handheld camerawork, there is no attempt to polish the presentation. In fact, aside from reel changes, the footage feels almost unedited.* Syberberg even includes the subject’s occasional guttural coughs. The implacable technique practically dares us to complain about the demands on our attention. How much will we sit through? The answer is, of course, as much as remains compelling and Syberberg almost shows that traditional techniques to maintain pace and interest are unnecessary, that the conversation alone can be enough to excite and sustain interest. Almost.
By placing inexorable demands on the viewer similar to those produced by the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk and Hitler’s public spectacles, Confessions implicitly becomes a quasi-Wagnerian film about the legacies of Wagner, used bizarrely as a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. Perhaps that is why there is little attempt to address the relationship between Wagner’s ideas and Nazism, but such a focus could keep our interest when, after about four hours, the film fumbles. Rigor gives way to tedium as the same topics are revisited without significant development and the reluctance to end becomes downright irritating. Perhaps the question of how much Nazism, Wagner and Syberberg himself are products of German culture cannot be adequately explored in anything short of a monograph. Nonetheless, before running down, The Confessions of Winifred Wagner fascinates with two difficult subjects, one handled in depth, the other a tantalizing hint.* The lack of cuts was apparently one of the conditions set by Frau Wagner for agreeing to the interview. (12/30/19)