Taking Sides

      Should an artist be judged by the work he produces or by the life he leads?
It is not an easy question to answer. For example, Carravagio is reputed to have
committed murder. Does that negate the beauty of his paintings? The world of
film and theater has seen its share of scandals; Kenneth Anger produced a
volume about some of the more lurid ones in
Hollywood Babylon. Are we to dismiss
the classic comedies of Charlie Chaplin because of his penchant for underage
actresses? Should all Busby Berkeley musicals be banned because he accidentally
killed someone in a car accident and then had the studio cover it up? Does Woody
Allen's affair with (and subsequent marriage to) his paramour's daughter mean
that his work is invalid? I know many who dismissed
dramatization based on the memoir of musician Vladislaw Szpilman who survived
the Holocaust and went on to enjoy a successful postwar career, because it
was directed by Roman Polanski. Ironically, the film
TAKING SIDES, directed by
Istvan Szabo and adapted from the 1995 play by Ronald Harwood (who won an
Oscar for his screenplay for
THE PIANIST), raises some of these issues. In
this case, the question of whether or not the famed German conductor
Wilhelm Furtwangler was a Nazi collaborator.

      Indeed, in some ways
TAKING SIDES may be seen as the perfect
companion piece to
THE PIANIST. Both films are about classical musicians
who opted to remain in their respective countries as the Nazi Party solidified
its power. Szpilman lost all standing in society, watched as his family was
herded into the cattle cars heading for concentration camps, and was sheltered
by various courageous individuals until the end of the war. Furtwangler
surreptitiously worked to assist Jewish musicians in their flight out of the
country, yet he received numerous honors from the Third Reich, hobnobbed
with important government officials (like Hermann Goerring and Joseph
Goebbles) and even led concerts at Nazi Party functions (including one for
Adolf Hitler's birthday). Following the war, Furtwangler had to face the
American Denazification Committee and Harwood uses this as the spark for
his intriguing, if talky play. In adapting the stage work for the screen, the
writer has opened the action some, but its main set pieces retain their
theatrical flavor without coming down in favor of either side. Indeed, not
unlike the exemplary documentary
TAKING SIDES presents opposing views and forces the audience
to make up its own mind.

      Furtwangler's case is given to Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), a
former insurance salesman who sets out to make an example of the German
conductor and his choices. Arnold is determined to prove that Furtwangler
knowingly supported and benefited from his connections to the Nazi Party
officers. Assisting him are German-born American Lt. David Willis (Morritz
Bleibtrau) whose family were killed in the concentration camps, and Emmi
Straube (Birgit Minichmayr), herself a survivor of the camps and the daughter
of an officer executed for his participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Both
of these young idealistic assistants clash with Arnold over his handling of
the case. Arnold appears to be single-minded in his determination to make
a scapegoat of Furtwangler, while David and Emmi are awed by the maestro's
genius and reputation.

      When Arnold finally interviews Furtwangler (an excellent Stellan
Skarsgard), he treats him badly, making him wait in the antechamber,
refusing to give him water, and dismissing the conductor's answers.
Furtwangler presents his views: Germany is his homeland and he remained
in order to conduct music not to participate in the Nazi propaganda machine.
His motives were entirely artistic. Besides, he was more useful on the inside,
using his influence to assist Jewish musicians to escape from Germany. It's
to the credit of both Harwood and director Istvan Szabo that the movie
presents each character as articulate and determined. Evidence of both
Furtwangler's views (he reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks that he
claimed were made only in the presence of Nazis) and his charitable
activities unfold without comment. The cases on both sides are equally
strong and each man can be seen in shifting light. If only Szabo had
curtailed Keitel's penchant for screaming, Arnold would have emerged as
perhaps a bit more sympathetic and charismatic. Instead, there's a subtle
shift in audience sympathy to Skarsgard's Furtwangler. The Danish actor
underplays his scenes and only reaches a fever pitch when pushed to the
limit, an outburst that is all the more effective because it comes from such
a seeming milquetoast.

      There are no hard and fast answers to the issues posed in the film, and
that is its genius. Almost 60 years after the fact, the debate over Furtwangler's
collaboration with the Nazis continues.
TAKING SIDES merely shines a light
on the issue and presents the facts to the audience. They must serve as jury
and decide what may have really happened.

                              RATING:                 B+
                              MPAA Rating:      NONE
                              Running time:     105 mins

                                    Viewed at Magno Review One
© 2006 by C.E. Murphy. All Right Reserved.