A career-best performance by Stellan Skarsgard gives pathos and dignity to Istvan Szabo’s “Taking Sides,” an over-polarized but often moving examination of an artist’s travails under totalitarianism viewed through the real-life story of ace conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who remained in Germany during the Nazi era. Though weakened by unshaded playing from Harvey Keitel in a simplistic role as Furtwangler’s de-Nazification interrogator, pic still offers considerable food for thought for upscale audiences and rich perfs from its supporting cast, signaling limited theatrical play prior to wider dissemination on the small screen.
Despite being Szabo’s first movie for which he did not also write the screenplay, “Taking Sides” is perhaps the veteran Magyar director’s most personal. As an artist who also prospered and won acclaim under a totalitarian (Communist) regime, making a string of classics from the early ’60s to mid-’80s, Szabo clearly was attracted to the theme of British writer Ronald Harwood’s play, directed on the London stage by Harold Pinter in 1995 and on Broadway by David Jones the following year.
In the same way that Szabo came to terms with his Jewish origins in his mammoth “Sunshine” (1999), so in “Sides” he grapples with the fraught subjects of compliance and an artist’s battered self-respect.
Opening, set in wartime Berlin, arrestingly combines realism with metaphor as a concert of Beethoven’s Fifth in an imposing church is cut short by an air raid and Furtwangler is forced to move to safety. Remainder of the movie is set after the Allied victory.
Despite token efforts to broaden the work by offering glimpses of a rubble-strewn, post-WWII Berlin that recalls pics of the era such as Helmut Kautner’s “In Those Days” and Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair,” heart of the movie — as in the play — remains the ad hoc office of Major Steve Arnold (Keitel), assigned by a vengeful U.S. general (R. Lee Ermey, in an early demonstration of the film’s extreme polarization) to investigate the case of Furtwangler (Skarsgard) prior to his appearance before the American De-Nazification Committee.
Music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and one of the most famous conductors of his generation, Furtwangler had remained in Germany during the rise of Nazism and the war itself. Arnold, who’s never heard of him, is explicitly told to find Furtwangler guilty, as “a gifted artist who sold himself to the devil.” Drama hinges on three Q&A sessions between Arnold and Furtwangler in the former’s makeshift office above a classically designed museum.
Prior to Furtwangler’s entry a half-hour in, script fills out the ethical middle ground with two other characters who evolve into the film’s liberal conscience. Arnold is assigned a young English-speaking secretary, Emmi Straube (Austria’s Birgit Minichmayr, excellent), daughter of a well-known German officer executed for trying to murder Hitler. Quietly, Emmi becomes the emotional center of the movie, as she becomes progressively disgusted by Arnold’s arrogant disrespect toward a great artist. Bridging the national divide is Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu, from “Run Lola Run,” very good and speaking impeccable English), a Leipzig-born, American-raised liaison officer for cultural affairs assigned to maintain fair play in the investigation.
Both young thesps manage to humanize essentially schematic roles as the script checks off the various issues with mathematical precision. Orchestra members all attest to Furtwangler’s rigid distinction between art and politics, how he never actually saluted Hitler at concerts and how the conductor helped many Jewish artists. Furtwangler himself insists he was merely a pawn in Goering and Goebbels’ fight for control of art and culture in the Third Reich, and stayed in his homeland (a) because he isn’t Jewish, and (b) to fight from the inside.
As the sessions between Arnold and Furtwangler heat up, the script’s simple polarities become more acute and even serve to weaken the arguments under discussion. Too often, cliches collide head-on — philistinism vs. high culture, U.S. monochromism and materialism vs. European compromise and aestheticism and so on — with Arnold the blustering, frustrated soldier and Furtwangler the tortured but proud artist. By the time of the third, explosive session, Arnold is reduced to a ranting bully.
A more interesting film would have resulted if Arnold had been a classical music lover himself, or even an admirer of Furtwangler — and thus a conflicted character, torn between admiration and duty. As it is, and with Keitel’s bulldog dialogue and performance, the movie evolves into a commentary on something very different: how artists are brutalized by regimes of all colors, and how art and its purveyors are never accorded their due respect.
This, finally, is the heart of Szabo’s movie — and the only way in which its extremes seem justified. And its soul rests in Skarsgard’s performance, a powerful mixture of buttoned-down anger and personal disappointment that combines the filmmaker’s self-questioning with the real-life character’s conflict. Though looking little like Furtwangler himself, the physically imposing but dressed-down Skarsgard creates a memorable portrait of pride reduced to penury, of a careerist facing yet another obstacle in his personal artistic mission. Keitel, though looking convincingly ’40s with a pencil mustache and blocky walk, is on full-throttle all the way.
Most other characters are window-dressing to the central arguments, though Russia’s Oleg Tabakov contribs a colorful perf as a Soviet colonel who tries to cut a deal to cart Furtwangler off to Moscow, and Ulrich Tukur is OK as a violinist revealed to have a murky past.
Ken Adam’s production design economically conveys a sense of desolation, an impression furthered by the autumnal palette of Szabo’s regular lenser, Lajos Koltai.
For anyone doubting the pic’s sympathies and underlying theme, final docu footage of Furtwangler himself — from his hands to his drawn face — offers little doubt.