Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic under the Third Reich, is Exhibit A in István Szabó’s Taking Sides, written by Ronald Harwood from his play. Much of the film, which takes place in Berlin just after the war, consists of highly charged pretrial exchanges between the dazed, imperious conductor (Stellan Skarsgard) and his dogged American interrogator, Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel). Arnold is charged by the American Denazification Committee with finding proof that Furtwängler, although not a member of the Nazi Party, complied with Nazi propaganda. The major worked in insurance claims as a civilian and can smell a rat a mile away. Undeterred by Furtwängler’s almost beatific status among Germans—even among some German Jews—he sees his mission as straightforward: “I’m gonna get that fucking bandleader.”
The already extreme contrast between Arnold and Furtwängler is ratcheted even higher by the filmmakers for maximum symbolic significance. Arnold believes that artists are every bit as accountable as lesser mortals for their crimes, while Furtwängler protests that art and politics are separate spheres, that he served the soul of the German people by giving them spiritual sustenance during dark times. Their shouted exchanges seem staged for the audience’s benefit; we are asked to grapple with deep philosophical issues while the two protagonists never really budge from their positions. They’re pawns in Harwood’s stilted morality play.
“What Taking Sides most resembles is an old-fashioned Hollywood message movie of the Stanley Kramer variety.”
If Arnold, in particular, had entertained even the slightest change of heart, then perhaps Taking Sides would have achieved a much-needed note of ambiguity. But because he is so unwaveringly bullheaded, we never see how Furtwängler’s arguments might have affected him, and the film becomes plodding and repetitive. This is a movie about a philistine and an aristocrat, and never the twain shall meet. When he wrote his lyrically intuitive, Oscar-winning script for The Pianist, Harwood seemed to unlearn all the tricks of traditional, “well-made” playwriting; it was as though we were witnessing the convolutions of a waking dream (or nightmare). But Taking Sides has a padded-out, stagebound quality that is anything but lyrical. And Szabó, a Hungarian best known for Mephisto and Colonel Redl, is not at his best here. He allows his cast to emote at full throttle, and the result is often just so much speechifying. Keitel, wearing a thin mustache, is at least good at being blustery, but Skarsgard seems awash in righteous funk. It’s hard to imagine that his Furtwängler ever had the vim to conduct Beethoven’s Fifth.
As high-toned as it tries to be, what Taking Sides most resembles is an old-fashioned Hollywood message movie of the Stanley Kramer variety. In parceling out equal time to both sides of the art-vs.-politics argument, the filmmakers only succeed in neutralizing everything with “fairness.” But they don’t do either side justice: For example, we never learn the extent of Furtwängler’s anti-Semitic remarks, or, for that matter, the nature of his assistance to the Jewish members of his orchestra (though detailed testimony must surely have existed). The filmmakers set Furtwängler up as a straw man and then fail to provide the straw.
The accountability of artists for their ideologies is a deeply resonant subject. Fortunately, there is a similarly themed movie available on video that does it right: Jan Troell’s neglected 1997 masterpiece Hamsun, starring Max von Sydow as the Norwegian Nobelist and Nazi collaborator Knut Hamsun. It’s perhaps the greatest film I’ve seen in at least a decade and one in which this subject is treated with a full measure of awe and terror. The only terror for me in Taking Sides was Major Arnold’s anecdote about a German music critic whose negative review of a Furtwängler concert landed him on the Russian front lines. Now, there’s a cautionary tale.