As in his subsequent screenplay, The Pianist (2002), screenwriter Ronald Harwood distills a tragedy from the life of an actual classical musician who survives Nazi Germany in Taking Sides (2001) to tell a story of ethics and drama amid war, or in this case, postwar. But here, Harwood features not a Jew, but the German Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgåard), an eminent 20th century conductor whose only peer was the legendary Arturo Toscanini.
Like any true tragic figure, Furtwängler rises beyond the stature that his flawed character can bear. Though lust is uncovered as one of his failings, it’s his pride that seems to lead to his downfall (not to mention that he continued to conduct while the Nazis were in power, including a concert for Hitler, and was one of the Nazi Party’s greatest cultural assets). While Toscanini protested the persecution of German Jews by refusing to perform in Germany, Furtwängler believed that his musical genius could transcend Nazi politics. And here’s where our movie begins.
American U.S. Army Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is sent to interrogate Furtwängler to determine if he was a member of the Nazi Party, as part of the U.S. government’s overall postwar effort to “de-Nazify” Germany. As Arnold increasingly berates Furtwängler, questions of music and politics rule the film, and engage the viewer in a conversation about whether Furtwängler made the right decision in his stated belief that art will always transcend politics.
Though Furtwängler sets off the plot of Taking Sides, he soon becomes the hapless antagonist and the equivocal foil to the film’s anti-hero, Arnold. Arnold’s mission is to connect Furtwängler to Hitler’s Nazi party and prosecute him. The two men couldn’t be more different. Furtwängler sees himself in shades of gray as a sophisticated artist and intellectual, and rationalizes and denies his role in Nazi atrocities. In stark contrast, Arnold sees the world in black and white; he is a crude American bully who listens to swing music and dismisses Furtwängler’s verbal defenses as artistic fairy bullshit. As Arnold sniffs, ferrets and wrings out evidence to indict Furtwängler, he alludes that the conductor is the Moby-Dick to his Ahab. But as Arnold ruthlessly cross-examines Furtwängler, it becomes a horribly fascinating game of cat and mouse recalling Gestapo interrogations.
Despite some dialogue that betrays its stage origin, Taking Sides is an intelligent film that skillfully avoids what its title suggests, by not taking sides. Instead, it asks provocative questions: What is the balance between genius and ethics? Where do the lines lie between heroism and cowardice, between good and evil?
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.