Taking Sides

on September 05, 2003 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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.

Tags: Starring Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Moritz Bleibtreu. Directed by Istvan Szabo, Written by Ronald Harwood, Produced by Yves Pasquier, New Yorker, Drama

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