David Ng of The Los Angeles Times has found a fascinating real-life, historical parallel to the dysfunctional dynamics of the extended Vanger family and some of its more than sympathetic ties to the Nazis: namely, the Wagners, the extended family of Richard Wagner, the famed German composer.
Ng’s report is quoted in full below, but it inspired us to note one additional connection between the Wagners and the plot of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
At the end of the book, Lisbeth Salander travels to Zurich under the name of Irene Nesser. Once there she further transforms herself into Monica Sholes—complete with blond wig, long eyelashes, fancy leather briefcase and a 44,000 kroner ($7,000) wardrobe—and proceeds to relieve the corrupt magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström of his ill-gotten gains and make them her own.
Zurich also played an important part in Richard Wagner’s life: the composer moved there in 1849 in exile from his native Dresden. It was there he wrote his infamous tract, “Judaism in Music,” in which he excoriated Jewish composers for creating music bereft of expression and full of triviality and nonsense. It was an essay that reflected the composer’s own emerging anti-Semitic, national-socialists views and one that would help lay the cultural foundations of the Nazi political movement seventy years later.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” features the movie season’s nastiest and most disturbing family — the Vangers, a Swedish industrial dynasty whose great material wealth is matched only by its great moral corruption. In their role as the ultimate dysfunctional family, the Vangers bear an uncanny resemblance to another powerful Euro clan with dubious ethics — the Wagners of Germany.
The similarities amount to more than just a coincidence of last names. “Tattoo,” based on the bestseller by Stieg Larsson, goes to great lengths to map the gnarled roots of the Vanger family tree, which is already rotting from the inside when the story opens. Ensconced in frostbitten isolation on an island off the Swedish coast, the Vangers are a family defined primarily by infighting and estrangement. Bad blood runs ice cold; siblings and cousins are no longer on speaking terms. To complicate matters, Nazi sympathies run deep in this family, like a defective gene inherited by successive generations.
The real-life Wagners — whose most famous member was the 19th century operatic composer Richard Wagner — are no strangers to internal strife, or to Nazi sympathies for that matter. Like the Vangers in “Tattoo,” they preside over an old, musty family business — the Bayreuth Festival, an annual celebration of their uber-patriarch’s operas.[**] In the past, the festival has been besieged by internecine power plays. The festival’s current directors — half-sisters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier — took control only after a prolonged battle involving their cousin and rival, Nike Wagner.
Nazi ties are a salient feature in Wagner family history. (Richard Wagner’s life pre-dated the rise of the Third Reich but the composer was a well-known anti-Semite.) Winifred Wagner, the English-born woman who became the composer’s daughter-in-law, was a close friend of Adolf Hitler and made the dictator welcome at the Bayreuth Festival, which she eventually directed.
In “Tattoo,” Nazism and anti-Semitism are similarly ingrained in the Vanger family history. As recounted early in Larsson’s novel, a key Vanger scion served as a member of the Swedish National Socialist Freedom League — one of the country’s first Nazi groups — and later joined up with Sven Olov Lindholm, a real-life Swedish Nazi leader. Anti-Semitism later plays an important role in the novel’s central plot, the investigation of Harriet Vanger, who has been missing for decades and is presumed dead.
Vanger/Wagner parallels don’t stop there. Larsson has populated the “Tattoo” family with Germanic names that come straight from the Wagner family tree — Gottfried, Richard and Fredrik/Friedrich can be found in both dynasties. The sexual frustration of an heir apparent is also a shared trait. Siegfried Wagner, Winifred’s husband and the composer’s eldest son, was homosexual and is believed to have engaged in a number of illicit affairs. In “Tattoo,” No. 1 son Martin Vanger carries a much more complicated sexual burden that is revealed in gradual, gruesome detail.
In both families, there is at least one upstanding member who represents moral rectitude — a white sheep, as it were, among a sea of black sheep. In “Tattoo,” it’s elderly Henrik Vanger (played in the American movie by Christopher Plummer), who frequently speaks out against his family and instigates the investigation into Harriet’s disappearance. For the Wagners, it’s Gottfried, great-grandson of the composer, who currently is alienated from the family and has openly condemned its connections to Nazism.
Did Larsson deliberately model the Vangers after the Wagners? It’s difficult to say, but the similarities are rather too abundant to be pegged to chance alone. The author, who died in 2004, was a lefty journalist whose professional obsessions included reporting on Nazism past and present. While it’s unclear whether Larsson was a classical music aficionado, it’s certainly plausible that he was familiar with the Wagner family’s dark history.
“Tattoo” leaves the impression of the Vangers as a group of monstrous gargoyles in terminal decay. As Henrik describes them in the movie, using words that many would apply to certain Wagners: They are “thieves, misers, bullies… the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet.”
[**] Note: anyone wanting to dig deeper into the Wagner family controversies and their control of the Bayreuth Festival will find this interview with Nike Wagner, a descendant of the composer in the German magazine Der Spiegel, of interest.