What is the responsibility of the artist living
under totalitarianism? Does he continue to
create his art while trying to remain above the
political fray? Or does he actively try to
influence events so that less people suffer
under the dictatorship--but thus risk his life in
the process? Istvan Szabo's "Taking Sides"
locates that moral dilemma in the case of
famed German conductor Wilhelm
Furtwangler, who, along with Herbert von
Karajan, was one of Germany's greatest
musical talents. But while van Karajan was a
declared member of the Nazi party and thus
morally culpable, Furtwangler's record was
not so clear-cut. He supposedly saved Jewish
musicians but also went on record with anti
-Semitic comments and performed for Hitler.
"Taking Sides" concentrates on the battle of
wills between a fictional American
Denazification expert, Major Steve Arnold
(Harvey Keitel), and Furtwangler (Stellan
Skarsgard), who wants to be cleared of
suspicion so he can go back to performing.
Major Arnold considers all Germans guilty of
being Nazis, but his German-born Jewish
lieutenant, David Wells (Moritz Bleibtreu), is
more sympathetic to Furtwangler's plight.
This is compelling material, but
Szabo's--and screenwriter Ronald
Harwood's--execution of it is ham-handed.
"Taking Sides" is mostly made up of scenes
of a righteous Arnold--in a one-note
performance by Keitel--browbeating a
cowering Furtwangler. (Skarsgard, who looks
too young to be playing the 59-year-old
Furtwangler, simply looks guilty in those
scenes.) An ornate film with carefully
designed sets depicting the ruined aftermath
of Berlin, "Taking Sides" fails to catch fire,
unlike Jan Troell's recent gem, "Hamsun,"
which also dealt with a well-known artist,
Norwegian writer Knut Hamusun, facing the
ramifications of his involvement with Nazi
Germany. It's only in its last, admittedly
powerful scene, in which the reasons for
Arnold's anger are revealed and Furtwangler
gets to articulate the reasons for his stance,
that "Taking Sides" begins to have an impact.
But by then, it's too little, too late.
Starring Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard and
Moritz Bleibtreu. Directed by Istvan Szabo.
Written by Ronald Harwood. Produced by Yves
Pasquier. A New Yorker release. Drama.
Unrated. Running time: 111 min.