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Five Powerful Uses of Wagner's Music In Films

By Neil Kimel

Within his complex operas, Wagner assigns characters and certain thematic elements musical "leitmotifs". These themes alert and help guide listeners through the intricate web of his operas' plots. When some of these familiar moments are added to the soundtracks of great films, their effects on audiences are profound. Below are five examples that masterfully utilized Wagner’s music in feature films.

The Great Dictator (1940) Lohengrin As gossamer strings float the Prelude to Lohengrin, Charlie Chaplin contemplates world domination. In this magical moment of his "talkie", Chaplin reverts to the silence that made him famous by masterfully performing a graceful pantomime with a floating globe. The symbolism is rich, and the music is ironically heavenly.

Excalibur (1981) Götterdämmerung There are many parallels between the legend of King Arthur's sword Excalibur that he pulled from a stone and the sword Nothung that only Siegmund could pull from an ash tree. In John Boorman's epic and lush retelling of the Arthurian tale, audiences are immersed in this fabled time. The finale of Excalibur shows Perrcival throwing Excalibur into a lake while the strains of the "sword motif" in "Siegfried's Funeral Music" from Götterdämmerung are heard. Melancholia (2011) Tristan und Isolde In Lars von Trier's beautifully moody film, Melancholia, the ill-fated Tristan and Isolde are the perfect symbols referenced by Wagner's music. A newly discovered planet is on a collision course with Earth, and doom is in the air for two sisters - not to mention the rest of humanity. As the worlds near imminent impact, the emotionally turbulent music from Tristan und Isolde grows to a towering climax that viewers will not forget.

The New World (2005) Das Rheingold As Christopher Columbus's three ships arrive in the New World, three silhouetted figures swim beneath the water's surface. The soundtrack is flooded with the gently flowing and bubbling arpeggios that open Wagner's Das Rheingold and visionary director Terrence Mallick emphasizes the swimmers' resemblance to the Rhine Maidens from the same opera. Just as the magic gold was stripped from the Rhine Maidens by Alberich, European explorers took the pristine land from its indigenous residents.

Apocalypse Now (1979) Die Walküre Robert Duvall explains to his troops that he blares Wagner's music to scare the enemy. In this visually terrifying scene, director Francis Ford Coppola utilizes "The Ride of the Valkyries" in its most iconic use outside of the opera house. Swirling and galloping music (meant to symbolize the flying horses of the Valkyrie warriors) accompanies a fleet of US helicopters attacking a rural village in Vietnam. This scene's striking beauty and visceral horrors juxtaposed with Wagner’s evocative music have left a lasting impact on audiences for decades. Lastly, if you didn’t get enough of The Flying Dutchman onstage this fall, you can also watch the moody and expressionistic 1964 film version by Joachim Herz. The sea and spirit of the story really come alive in this remarkable take on the opera.

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