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A conductor's life, through the prism of the Third Reich

September 19, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In compelling, suspenseful fashion, "Taking Sides" illuminates brilliantly the dilemma of a great, world-renowned artist flourishing in a totalitarian regime. The artist in question was Wilhelm Furtwangler, the greatest conductor in Germany of his time -- perhaps in the world -- and tragically for him the height of his career coincided with the rise of the Third Reich.

This remarkable, challenging film is the result of an inspired collaboration between "The Pianist's" Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood and Hungarian director Istvan Szabo, renowned for his trilogy of historical films, the Oscar-winning "Mephisto" (1980), "Colonel Redl" (1986) and "Hanussen" (1987), all dealing with complicated, gifted men caught in similar moral predicaments to Furtwangler.

It is a splendidly cinematic adaptation of Harwood's play, a carefully researched dramatization of the fate that awaited Furtwangler at the end of World War II. "Taking Sides" offers Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgard highly demanding, richly rewarding roles, and their performances are among their finest.

Keitel's Maj. Steve Arnold has been assigned by the American de-Nazification Committee to carry out a pretrial investigation of Furtwangler (Skarsgard) with the specific intent of holding up the conductor as a symbol of a defeated Nazi Germany. Having seen the horrors of the concentration camps firsthand -- and having never even heard of Furtwangler -- Arnold ruthlessly sets out to get Furtwangler as one of the "big guys."

Providing a contrasting perspective on the conductor are an American army lieutenant (Moritz Bleibtreu), who is a German-born Jew serving as a liaison officer with the Allied Cultural Affairs Committee, and Arnold's secretary (Birgit Minichmayr), whose father was executed as a plotter in the failed assassination of Hitler in July 1944. They are capable of a respect for and an appreciation of Furtwangler as a man and an artist that is beyond Arnold's comprehension.

The tall, aristocratic conductor and his situation were infinitely more complex than his interrogator's simplistic view of him. Furtwangler was no Nazi sympathizer (he even refused to salute Adolf Hitler and has been credited with saving the lives of at least 80 Jews). But even to a greater degree than the film suggests, he became a victim of the Nazi propaganda machine, which included forcing upon him various titles and degrees on the one hand and keeping files on the other, suggesting an anti-Semitism on his part that now could be used against him. An insurance claims investigator in real life, Arnold, unsophisticated but shrewd, is well-equipped to torment Furtwangler.

His questions are, in Furtwangler's accurate words, "impertinent and stupid," and Keitel's Arnold is charged with an ignorant arrogance, an implicit assertion of American supremacy, that rings with a chillingly contemporary note. Yet, as increasingly hateful as Arnold becomes, he does begin to force Furtwangler to question the validity of his belief that art and politics can be kept separate in a totalitarian regime.

This in turn forces the conductor to confront how he inescapably became a puppet of the Nazis for all his commitment to keeping the spirit of German high culture alive and a comfort to the people in his country's darkest hours. (Although awkward in his self-defense, Furtwangler is not without telling retorts, at one point asking Arnold if he can conceive only of a material universe.)

There were more aspects to Furtwangler's character and situation than the crackling drama that "Taking Sides" can reasonably be expected to tackle in 105 minutes, but it does suggest how increasingly impossible his life and career became. Furtwangler ultimately fled to Switzerland in February 1945, acting on a tip from Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, that he was slated for execution on the pretext that he had participated in that Hitler assassination attempt.

A somberly handsome production, "Taking Sides" takes place principally in a vast salon in a magnificent but barren and slightly war-damaged old government building. The scale of the room is such that it allows Szabo to suggest that the issues the combative major and conductor debate dwarf them in their implications. There is a superb ruined postwar grandeur to the celebrated Ken Adam's production design that reflects the patrician but humbled Furtwangler's condition perfectly.

The entire thrust of the film suggests that, certainly for his own good, as well as that of his country, Furtwangler should have left Germany with Hitler's rise to power.

But "Taking Sides" is too sophisticated not to imply an irony in this view. Would Furtwangler have been able to pour so much passion and anguish into such works as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, qualities that have preserved his artistic reputation, had he conducted them from the safety of exile? "Taking Sides" not only resists taking sides but also invites the viewer to see Furtwangler in the whole.


'Taking Sides'

MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Language, complex adult themes, plus brief archival Holocaust concentration camp atrocity footage too intense for children.

Harvey Keitel...Maj. Steve Arnold

Stellan Skarsgard...Wilhelm Furtwangler

Moritz Bleibtreu...Lt. David Wills

Birgit Minichmayr...Emmi Straube

Oleg Tabakov...Col. Dymshitz

A New Yorker Films release of a Maecenas, MBP, Paladin Productions and Studio Babelsberg presentation of a Little Big Bear Film production. Director Istvan Szabo. Producer Yves Pasquier. Executive producers Rainer Mockert, Rainer Schaper, Jacques Rousseau, Maureen McCabe, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, Michael von Valkenstein. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood; based on his play. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Sylvie Landra. Costumes Gyorgyi Szakacs. Production designer Ken Adam. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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