Taking Sides
review by Gregory Avery, 26 September 2003

The filmmakers save their trump card, it turns out, until the very end, when they show us actual footage of Wilhelm Furtwängler being congratulated at the end of a concert by Hitler. Furtwängler is then caught, on film, doing something which clears up the entire question of just what his allegiance was to the Nazis. It's too bad that they couldn't have dramatized that in the preceding film.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was a leading symphony conductor in the 1930s and 40s, considered to be on a par with Arturo Toscanini, himself famous for conducting the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra during popular radio broadcasts of classical works in the U.S. (I have several vintage L.P. recordings of Toscanini conducting the Beethoven symphonies, plus works by Brahms and Debussy, and they are of interest for how Toscanini does distinctive interpretations of familiar works.) Furtwängler chose to remain in Germany, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, when the Nazis came into power. Hitler and his inner circle were big on music, using Wagner and Beethoven as examples of truly German art, hence Aryan, hence the work of racial superiority. It was Furtwängler's sin that he did not altruistically leave Germany when the demons began to rule, a sticking point when, after the Second World War, he had to go through the "de-Nazification" process because he had conducted concerts under Nazi auspices. Yet, Furtwängler argues that he kept "art" and "politics" separate, never allowing the two to overlap so as to keep them distinct, and to keep his "art" pure. Besides, too, Germany was Furtwängler's country and his home.

Costa-Gavras' film, Amen, depicted another real-life German, Kurt Gerstein, a lieutenant in the S.S. Waffen officer who tried to alert the world as to what was happening in the concentration camps when he discovered that a chemical he had allocated for the extermination of lice and vermin, Zyklon-B, was being used to exterminate people. Gerstein chose to stay in his position in the S.S. so that he could continue to collect evidence that would convince people, and future generations, as to what was happening (and his evidence would later prove to be invaluable in the prosecution of war crimes). It was an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do, but Gerstein was motivated by a clear sense of conscience and morality, and of his love for his country, the real land that was under the encrustation of the Nazis.

Taking Sides opens with a U.S. Army Major, Steve Arnold, being told by a superior officer (played, fleeting, by R. Lee Ermey) that he has to "get" Furtwängler, who, to the Germans, was "Bob Hope and Betty Grable rolled into one". Arnold was an insurance man in civilian life, and, as the story progresses, it's supposed to show. He doesn't care for "airy-fairy" stuff, and fixates on Furtwängler being the "piper" who played the Nazi leadership's "tune", including leading a concert on Hitler's birthday, if not actually playing "Happy Birthday" to the Führer himself. Arnold, early on, sees Army Corps footage of bodies at the liberated camps being bulldozed into mass graves (because of the epidemic of typhus and other diseases that were found to be running rampant); when one of Arnold's staff, a secretary taking transcription, tries to quit because of Arnold's heavy-handed tactics, he shows her the same film, shaming her into staying.

Ronald Harwood adapted the film's screenplay from his own stage play, and István Szabó, who previously has made a trio of films on historical personages with actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, directed. There are some attempts to "open" the action out -- a brief opening sequence shows Furtwängler conducting a concert when bombs begin to fall outside, bringing things to a halt; later, we see another concert, in post-war Berlin, that turns out to be held in what's left of the same concert hall -- with no roof, the audience, when it starts to rain, simply open their umbrellas and stay in their seats until the musicians have finished. (The film's impressive depiction of a shattered Berlin gradually pulling itself back together was done by the great production designer Ken Adam, and it was photographed by the ace cinematographer Lajos Koltai.) But the film's main emphasis is on the meetings, or confrontations, between an increasingly antagonistic Maj. Arnold and Furtwängler, wan and unable to work until the occupying forces clear him to do so. (The Soviets openly express that they would love to have Furtwängler over at their place -- apparently, Shostakovich isn't enough.) Arnold and his staff collect information, some from an archive of secret materials collected by a Nazi intelligence operative, and they play recordings of Furtwängler's music (the film uses actual recordings of Furtwängler on the soundtrack). But that brief opening concert which is interrupted is all that we see of Furtwängler at-work; we learn about how those who worked with him felt about him, and they all say the same thing (he's OK by them), with the exception of one second-violinist (played by Ulrich Tukur, who also played, superbly, Kurt Gerstein in Amen), who turns out to have been a plant in Furtwängler's orchestra, anyway. The evidence that Arnold flings at Furtwängler increasingly turns out to be pretty flimsy stuff, a lot of it by circumstance or association -- how a music critic who wrote a bad review fell into disfavor, Furtwängler shaking hands on one occasion with Hitler (a lot of people did), and Furtwängler disliking an up-and-coming conductor named Herbert von Karajan (a lot of people did, too). Furtwängler doesn't get to say that much about his work during the meetings with Arnold, because he can scarcely get a word in edgewise. By the time Arnold is shown breaking one of Furtwängler's batons in two, we get the idea that the real antagonists in Taking Sides are not the deposed Nazis (not that they're any good, either) but the arrogant occupying forces -- they're less concerned about getting the truth than in one-upmanship, and how they go about it isn't any better than the ways and means used by the powers that they've just defeated. All they want Furtwängler to do is confess, yet, we don't know enough about Furtwängler to tell if he's really got anything to confess or not. Arnold is working on the assumption that Nazism may still lurk in the heart of each and every German, but, watching him grinding down the conductor, after a while it doesn't seem to be that big a deal whether he played "Happy Birthday" to Hitler or not.

What actually motivates Arnold more and more is the philistine idea of intelligent artists lording it about over the uneducated people, but Harvey Keitel's performance is so poorly defined in many ways that it's difficult to tell. Arnold is also perturbed over why the Jews were singled out as they were under the Nazis, as if, the way it looks in the film, Arnold has never encountered anti-Semitism in the U.S. (Gentleman's Agreement, anyone?) By the end, Keitel has played into all the worst aspects of the role and turns Arnold's interrogations of Furtwängler into a monotonous series of rants (and Szabó doesn't seem to care much what Keitel is doing, either). Stellan Skarsgård, as Furtwängler, tries to bring some subtle shading and dimension to his role, but the movie really hems him in -- he's reduced to being a man in a chair who turns gimlet-eyed under assault. The filmmakers save their trump card, it turns out, until the very end, when they show us actual footage of Wilhelm Furtwängler being congratulated at the end of a concert by Hitler, who goes to the front of the stage to greet Furtwängler personally (the "notorious" handshake). Furtwängler is then caught, on film, doing something which clears up the entire question of just what his allegiance was to the Nazis. It's too bad that they couldn't have dramatized that in the preceding film.

Directed by:
István Szabó

Harvey Keitel
Stellan Skarsgård
Moritz Bleibtreu
Birgit Minichmayr
Oleg Tabakov
Ulrich Tukur
R. Lee Ermey

Written by:
Ronald Harwood

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.







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