Judge Paul Corupe cruelly interrogates this intimate WWII drama.
"It's my country, why should I leave?"—Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård,)
Based on the play by writer Ronald Harwood (The Pianist), Taking Sides is an attempt to discover where art and politics intersect when a nation is placed under a dictatorship. The story that the film presents is not actually true, but draws on a fictionalized account of a real situation to highlight the moral dilemma of an artist who suddenly finds that their politically neutral work has become connected to a repressive state.
Facts of the Case
In postwar WWII Germany, Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård, Good Will Hunting) discovers that the reverence of Hitler is both a blessing and a curse when the American de-Nazification Committee tries to implicate him for Nazi atrocities. Although he was never a member or even a sympathizer of the Nazis, Furtwängler's popularity with party officials saw him promoted to dubious "official" posts, sent on tours, and invited to play official Nazi functions. Based on these associations, an inquiry is set up, led by Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant), a gruff, boorish American who hates classical music and has been ordered to incriminate Furtwängler at any cost.
Arnold has the broken, tired Furtwängler brought in for a series of merciless interviews in which he cruelly attacks the conductor with an anger fuelled by wartime footage of Nazi cruelty. Furtwängler admits his naïveté in trying to keep politics and art separate, but the Major is relentless in his accusations of complicity. Arnold's assistants, a Jewish-American lieutenant (Moritz Bleibtreu) and a German stenographer (Birgit Minichmayr) are appalled at his treatment of the world-famous conductor and look to intervene in any way they can.
Taking Sides was helmed by István Szabó, the talented Hungarian director who made 1981's Mephisto. In that film, a famous German actor finds himself in over his head as he decides to stay and perform in his homeland despite the rise of the Nazi party. Ronald Harwood's screenplay for The Pianist also explored the flourishing of art under Nazi rule, so it only makes sense that when these two minds were brought together to collaborate on Taking Sides that the finished product would draw equally from both of these earlier works.
Taking Sides begins with a remarkable scene, in which Furtwängler is seen conducting Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in a concert hall crowded with Nazis. Suddenly, the lights fizzle out, and all that can be heard are the bombings of an air raid outside. Then we flash forward to the end of the war, where we're introduced to the character of Major Arnold, who sets up a Berlin office to hold his pre-trial de-Nazification interviews. As the film is based on Harwood's play, it can have a stagy quality, with almost the entire film taking place primarily in this one room. Arnold sits menacingly behind a desk, interviewing several of the Philharmonic musicians, and finally Furtwängler himself. Each session with Furtwängler increases in intensity, as Arnold's allegations and mind games take on all the qualities of a malicious character assassination. Even though we are basically watching men in creaky wooden chairs argue for an hour and a half, the pace is kept quick and interesting, with Furtwängler's pontifications about music as art proving particularly fascinating.
When Szabó brings the camera outside into the streets and concert halls, the film really sings. War-torn Germany is provocatively portrayed with bombed-out buildings and spontaneous marketplaces arising out of stark, rubble-lined streets. One particular scene stands out, in which a concert audience at a roofless cathedral must open their umbrellas when it starts raining during a string quartet performance. The cinematography outside the office is always interesting and well-composed, and really helps to give the audience breathing room after the claustrophobic interrogation scenes.
Although Furtwängler avoided saluting Hitler and he is quick to point out that any anti-Semitic remarks he made were only to please his powerful masters, Taking Sides refuses to directly condemn or absolve Furtwängler, at least not until the telling last shot of the film. It does however seem to place some blame on him for not getting out of the country while he still could, like so many of his fellow musicians. The real strength of the film is that places the viewer directly in the hot seat with a furious Army major breathing down your neck. Taking Sides makes no apologies for forcing the audience to consider if they would flee their own country if a totalitarian government suddenly took hold, a question which definitely has no easy answers.
The only problem with Taking Sides is Keitel's performance as Major Arnold, which is a shame, because all the other actors here do outstanding jobs. Early on, the audience identifies with Arnold's apparent quest for the truth in determining Furtwängler's culpability, but his friendly "just call me Steve" manner soon turns decidedly nasty. As the film progresses, Keitel goes way over the top in revealing Arnold as an obnoxious, uncultured man whose single-mindedness simply will not allow him to see Furtwängler in any other light than a vicious war criminal. Keitel thrusts audience sympathies over to Furtwängler much earlier than the script calls for by the sheer abrasiveness of his acting. By the end he is a howling maniac obsessed with proving the conductor's guilt, but again there is a problem, since Keitel just does not display the charisma needed to pull off a full-fledged villain. This is just a complete misinterpretation of the role on Keitel's part.
New Yorker's DVD presentation of Taking Sides is quite good, featuring a sharp anamorphic transfer with solid colors and deep blacks. No edge enhancement or artifacts are present at all, and as with most transfers of recent films, this DVD looks great. Although most of the film consists of dialogue-heavy interviews, sound quality becomes especially important in the classical concert pieces. Once again, the disc doesn't disappoint with lush renditions of several movements from Beethoven's Symphony No.5 in C Minor and Schubert's String Quartets in D. Scratchy, slightly tinny recordings of Furtwängler conducting as heard on Major Arnold's record player also provide a nice counterpoint to the larger concert hall pieces.
There are a few special features included on this disc, but they aren't particularly informative or interesting. A "behind the scenes" featurette is simply a six-minute video shot during production. There is no narration or explanation, making this closer to watching Szabó's home movies. Also included is a heartstring-tugging trailer. There's nothing here that warrants a second viewing.
A courtroom drama at heart, Taking Sides manages to overcome its theatrical staginess to provide some beautiful music and images. In real life, Furtwängler was cleared of any connections with the Nazis and his music lived on, just as this film should as a meditation on the relationship between art and state.
Taking Sides is guilty of not following the advice of its title. For punishment, this court deems it should henceforth be renamed Bad Major, and the Harvey Keitel nude scene is to be edited back in. Court adjourned!
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.