Classical Notes
Wilhelm Furtwangler, Genius Forged in the Cauldron of War

Taking Sides

Taking Sides, a 2001 movie directed by István Szabó and written by Ronald Harwood (based on his play),treble clef design has achieved only sporadic exhibition (it first came to Washington DC for one week in January 2004) but is a highly effective and generally responsible depiction of the Allied investigation into Furtwängler's wartime role in preparation for his denazification trial. Aside from some fictionalized contrivances there are no new revelations, but it often takes a mainstream dramatization to bring significant moral issues to public attention.

Any attempt to squeeze a complex historical/philosophical situation into the confines of a play or movie requires simplification and, to avoid a boring talk-fest, a large dose of poetic license. Taking Sides poster The drama is dominated by the character of cynical American investigator Steve Arnold (played by Harvey Keitel), a cultural cretin who's crude, contemptuous and downright nasty in his avenging zeal to "nail the bandleader" and hold all Germans responsible for their war crimes. It's an unfortunate caricature etched in poison of a stereotyped "Ugly American," oblivious to any culture but his own, although here his rage is kindled and largely warranted by horrific footage of the bulldozing of corpses at Bergen-Belsen. His aides, a repatriated German Jew and the daughter of an officer executed for plotting against Hitler, both transcend the lust for vengeance that their backgrounds lead us to expect and instead come to rebel against the investigator's excessive tactics and chronic arrogance to become champions of decency and compassion. Furtwängler himself (acted with great nuance and conviction by Stellan Skarsgard) is depicted as torn between pride and humility, although the role seems more assertive and articulate than reports of the time would suggest.

The script's focus on the mounting confrontations between the prosecutor and the artist is consistently enriched by atmospheric sets and cinematography – it opens as the camera tracks along row after row of German officers at a recreation of a Furtwängler concert, and ends as strains of Beethoven's Fifth (actually a Barenboim performance) follow the conductor down bureaucratic hallways and symbolically drown out the investigator's report to his superiors. Indeed, music appropriately provides an emotional context for much of the action, both literally (as when Furtwängler's recording of the Adagio from the Bruckner Seventh,poster for Taking Sides which he reportedly led on the eve of Hitler's birthday, feeds suspicion of his capitulation) and figuratively (as when the transition to the finale of the Beethoven Fifth, presumably denoting a dawning of consciousness, underscores the investigators' poring through war documentation).

The details which spark the dramatic incidents seem to run the gamut from plausibly accurate to wildly reckless. Among the more harmless but effective contrivances are a power failure abruptly ending Furtwangler's final Berlin concert (Speer, aware that the Gestapo is preparing to strike, using the occasion to suggest that Furtwängler looks tired and needs to get away for a while), Russian intrigue to bargain for Furtwängler's emigration, and a single 78 rpm side that impossibly holds both the first and second movements of Beethoven's Fifth. Far more dubious and invidious are speculative suggestions that the Berlin Philharmonic musicians conspired to concoct tales of Furtwängler's bravery, that Furtwängler's secretary procured groupies for his pleasure before each concert, and that damaging evidence lurks in a "Hinkel archive" (which sounds more like a satirical reference to Chaplin's Great Dictator than genuine history). And the concluding piece of newsreel footage, in which he appears to wipe himself off after shaking an official's hand, presumably intended to signal the director's ultimate empathy for Furtwängler's predicament, is so heavily edited as to appear fake and thus utterly worthless as the documentary evidence it purports to be.

The central conflict is presented with sufficient ambiguity to raise appropriate questions without asserting simplistic answers. Stellan Skarsgard playing the role of Furtwangler in Taking Sides Despite the overbearing role of the investigator and a theatrical tendency toward emotive confrontation, the dialog is often quite cogent, as when Arnold challenges Furtwängler with a key question: How could he claim ignorance of the Holocaust when he spent so much time saving Jews – did it never occur to him why Jews were in such mortal fear? Furtwängler's ultimate reflection may ring hollow, but is perhaps the only indisputable justification for his faith that art and politics remain separate and the only possible way to bridge the gaping chasm between his private intention of cultural preservation and widespread public perception of legitimizing a degenerate regime: he simply asks (without expecting an answer) whether we really want to live in a material world of clear-cut facts without the comfort and promise of art.

Taking Sides gives viewers much to ponder, not just about Furtwängler but the complex and lingering issues his case raises. Indeed, America is now heading toward its most partisan election in decades, with a startling number of voters not merely hoping for change but consumed by abject hatred of the present administration. If a citizen feels strongly that his government's behavior is irredemably immoral, just what should he do – apply all his energies to sway public opinion or disengage himself to await better times? How about artists, whose visibility imposes a special obligation to wield their influence responsibly – should they continue to perform in the hope that audiences will be drawn to their humanistic views, or should they demonstrate their disgust and emigrate? Do integrity and impact demand intensive activism or decisive retreat? While it's fine to ponder such moral issues with the comfort of intellectual abstraction, practical choices become limited in less tolerant societies and more trying times where dissent has dire consequences.

The key point, of course, is that we all take sides. But when the stakes are high, the risk great and the outcome uncertain, what side do we take?

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2004 by Peter Gutmann

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copyright © 1999-2004 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.