From the Academy Award" winning writer of The Pianist comes the provocative story, based on true events, of Wilhelm Furtwängler, arguably the most distinguished conductor of his generation. After Hitler took over power in... more » 1933, many Jewish artists were forced to leave Germany. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) chose to stay, serving as one of the Nazi`s foremost cultural assets. Though never a member of the Party, Furtwängler was the recipient of government honors and appointments, associated with party members. However, the conductor often used his position and contacts to save hundreds of Jewish musicians from the concentration camps. When Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is given the task of carrying out pre-trial investigations against Furtwängler, his aim is to prove that the conductor?s artistic genius contributed to the Nazi propaganda machine and their destructive ideology. Conversely, Furtwängler insists he chose to stay to bring comfort to the German people with his music. Like a master conductor, director István Szabó orchestrates the debate from cat-and-mouse intensity. Taking Sides is that rare film that demands the audience to take a position on an issue: in this case, the complicity or innocence of Wilhelm Furtwängler.« less
"Taking Sides starts with a superb scene. We are at a concert in Berlin as the great maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler conducts Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to a rapt audience. (Ironically, the piece was also a symbol of victory of the allies, with it's da-da-da-duum motto suggesting dot-dot-dot-dash--Morse Code for "V[ictory].") At the height of the drama, there's an air raid, spotlights start shining outside, and the lights in the hall eventually go out. It really happened. Both sides played Beethoven while bombs fell. Some recordings have even been preserved, and one can hear Wanda Landowska in London, for example, performing as bombs dropped around her.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movies doesn't live up to that great opening moment, or to another moment a short while later where a crowd of post-war music lovers sits in a bombed out cathedral, umbrellas raised, listening to Schubert in the rain. It's hard to give such a high-minded and ambitious film as "Taking Sides" a less-than-great evaluation (can you imagine sitting in a room and pitching this to a production company???), but "Taking Sides" disappoints and delights in almost equal measures. I have been wishing for years that someone would make a movie about classical music in this period in history and finally someone has. Unfortuantely, the budget on this was probably very very small, and it shows. But one doesn't have to necessarily have lots of bucks to make a great film. Still, the ability to film on more locations, better CGI effects (yes, this film has CGI effects in the form of bombed out buildings) and *a better editor* would have all helped things a bit. The editor on this picture was all thumbs, filling some scenes with inexplicably quick cutaway shots lasting fractions of a section, leaving other scenes to be one-shot monologues, even when you think it would be better to see a reaction, and inserting jump cuts awkwardly. We go from closeups to extreme long shots back to closeups without any rhyme or reason I can see (for a better example of how to handle this kind of shooting and editing, watch Patton), scenes are dropped carelessly in, with no thought to entrance or exit, and a whole subplot with a Russian officer who wants to trade "five conductors for my favorite Wilhelm Furtwangler" could have been reduced to one scene, or even left on the cutting room floor. It's so insignificant that I've been reading critics' reviews of the film on line all night, and not one has even mentioned it. It's five minutes of padding and just interrupts the main dramatic line.
Harvey Keitel plays his part with a little too much bluster from the getgo, so there's never a buildup. His one-note performance wears thin, and I'm not sure why they made the representative of one side of the argument a pig-headed ignoramus who in his way is as reprehensible as the Nazi barbarians he rails against. And the big moment at the end (I won't spoil it) regarding a recordng of the Adagio of the Bruckner 7th fell flat to me, because that seems to be one of the things you really *couldn't* fault Furtwangler for. And I would really like to know a little more about *how* Furtwangler saved some of his musicians from the death camps; having Keitel brush that away as besides the point was a cop-out on the film's part.
I kept waiting for the two minor characters, the secretary and the junior officer, to find something revelatory in that library search once they seemed to turn sides, but they never did. A lot of background information was tantilizingly hinted at, but that part of the story didn't feel fleshed out enough. I'm a subscriber to the Henry James theory of drama: if there's a gun on page one, by the end of the story it has to go off. To me there were some guns in this script that had their triggers cocked but were never fired. Pity. For example, early on, Furtwangler points out that other conductors who were far more implicated (Herbert von Karajan, for example) had already been cleared and were back to conducting. I would like to have known more about that--why and was there "politics" involved and who ultimately made these decisions. We could have seen Furtwangler's personal affects, what he had and what sort of "trunk" he was living out of. I would like to have learned more about how the post war conditions were affected Furtangler's life--his meager living situation and his reliance on the kindness of strangers--instead of just seeing him shuffle into the interrogation room every day.
But that's not to slight Stellan Skarsgard's performance, which is remarkable--while he didn't look much like Furtwangler and they didn't even try (too much hair!), I forgot all about that after five minutes, and thought about George C. Scott's comments about portraying General George Patton: what was important was not an exact resemblance but rather giving the *impression* of the man. Skarsgard certainly does that, based on the footage I've seen of Furtwangler, though the two definitely had different conducting styles!
Some have complained of the claustrophobia of the film, because it comes from a stageplay. I am more bothered by, as I said, strange choices of editing, never really letting us move around and breathe in the environment we're in. Remember that great scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson goes snoooing through the desk of the water commissioner early in the film? You learn a lot about the man and the time period in that scene. And as Jack explores LA, you breathe the air of the 1930s and feel like you're "living" there with the characters, and it's all done in an effortless way. This film could have used some of that, and a little less of Keitel and Skarsgard screaming over a desk.
The best moment may be saved for last. While Furtwangler never does convince Keitel's character of his sincerity--how could he?--and we are left wondering if perhaps Furtwangler's defense was more of an excuse than a defense, we cut to archival footage of the real Furtwangler at a concert. Nazi officers, including Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, are present. After the event, Goebbles walks to the podium to shake Furtwangler's hand. (The movie talks a lot about a handshake with Hitler and seems to imply this is it, but in truth the famous photo is of Furtwangler *bowing* to Hitler as Hitler remains seated.) After touching the hand of the propaganda minister, Furtwangler discreetly does something that says more about his true feelings than all the fighting across a desk ever could.
The DVD image is sharp, and the sound is excellent. There are some talking head interviews about the production, and a puzzling six minute "Making of" short that has no narration, no structure, and very little sound, and just appears to be randomly strung-together bits of behind-the-scenes footage. It's totally pointless."
THE GREAT MORAL DIVIDE...
Lawyeraau | Balmoral Castle | 08/23/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is an ambitious film in which playwright and novelist, Ronald Harwood, adapts his own play of the same name for the silver screen. Having successfully written the screenplay for the film, "The Pianist", which was based upon the best-selling memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, Harwood is no less successful here. With the deft direction of renowned Hungarian director Istvan Szabo and the thespian efforts of its stellar cast, the film thematically explores a number of moral issues, though in the end, it leaves it to the viewer to resolve them.
The film explores the aftermath of the fall of Hitler's Third Reich through the investigation by Allied Forces of world famous German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard). This was part of an investigative effort to discover Nazi collaborators within Germany's artistic community in the belief that there had been collusion between politics and art for the sake of politics. It was also believed that by rooting out Nazi sympathizers and collaborators among its influential members that the Nazi ideology would die a natural death in Germany for lack of iconic leaders.
Wilhelm Furtwangler undergoes a series of interrogations by a Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), a narrow-minded American officer, who has been given orders by his superior officer to find this musical icon guilty of war crimes at any cost. Furtwangler is suspected by the Americans of having been an influential Nazi sympathizer who, through his music, renown, and virtuosity, swayed the German people to march to Hitler's tune through their love of music, so deeply imbedded in the German psyche.
Arnold, a claims examiner for an insurance company in his former civilian life, approaches his subject with all the disdain and disrespect he can muster. Thorough, yet loutish and seemingly culturally ignorant, the loud-mouthed Arnold is worlds apart from his targeted subject. Deeply affected by newsreels of the death camps in which millions were brutally killed, Arnold approaches Furtwangler as if the conductor had been an integral part of the final solution.
Arnold's German secretary, Emmi (Birgitt Minichmayr), whose father was executed by the Nazis for an aborted plot to assassinate Hitler, and another Allied Forces officer, Davis Wills (Moritz Bliebtreu), a secular German Jew whose own parents died in Hitler's camps, are present during Arnold's impassioned interrogation of Furtwangler. Arnold's examination of the hapless Furtwangler sets the stage for the moral issues with which all the parties grapple and the viewer is left to ponder.
Harvey Keitel is excellent as the self-appointed avenging angel who sees things only in black and white absolutes. Birgitt Minichmayr is outstanding as the conflicted secretary, whose remembrance of her own interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo causes her to lose regard for Arnold. Moritz Bliebtreu is compelling as David Wills, who remembers Furtwangler as having been instrumental in inspiring his love of music and deplores the tenor of Arnold's interrogation. It is Stellan Skarsgard as Furtwangler, however, who steals the show. His sensitive and complex portrayal of the seemingly morally ambiguous Furtwangler is pure cinematic artistry.
Based upon true events, the film does not resolve the moral issues for the viewer. There is, however, a very telling vintage clip that follows at the conclusion of the film that shows the real Wilhelm Furtwangler with Adolf Hitler. What transpires is quite interesting and subject to interpretation. It is also consistent with the moral ambiguity of the film. One will have to decide for oneself what spin one cares to place on what one sees and decide which side of the moral divide one places Furtwangler, as well as oneself. All in all, this is a compelling and complex film. Bravo!
A Difficult Subject, A Brilliant Result
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 06/23/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"TAKING SIDES achieves what so many other attempts at exploring the extremes of the human psyche under duress do not. That nether land of doubt that exists when aftermath 'truths' can only be postulated and not proved is the fodder from which writer Ronald Harwood (who also wrote 'The Pianist') has created a terse and tense examination of the investigation by the Allied Forces of Conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler. Was he a Nazi sympathizer or a protector of Jews during the Holocaust? Director Istvan Szabo maintains the format of the original play to keep the story confined to the interrogation room, straying only momentarily to develop the characters of this quasi-trial. Stellan Skarsgard is extraordiarily fine as the controversial Furtwangler, even taking on his body language and conducting moments to the realist edge. As the Allied Forces interrogator Steven Arnold, Harvey Keitel is brilliant - seethingly angry, a hell-bent Major who refuses Furtwangler any semblance of respect. Assisting Keitel are his secretary Emmi (in an astonishingly fine performance by Birgitt Minichmayr) and an Allied observer David (the equally fine Moritz Bleibtreu), a Jew who still holds the subject Furtwangler in deep respect. But the magic is in the duets by Keitel and Skarsgard, sparring with personal venom and personal despair. We are not given a decision as to the truth of Furtwangler's investigation, but we are told the results of the interviews. All of the music is Beethoven and Schubert and Bruckner (the use of the Adagio from the Bruckner Symphony No. 7 is especially eloquent and meaningful) and is played from recordings by Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic as well as by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle of Berlin. This film is every bit as fine as the author's film of his THE PIANIST, but for some unknown reason it simply opened and closed in the theaters without making the impact it so justly deserves. Highly recommended on every level."
Art vs. Morality?
bevier | 02/23/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This film, which concerns the behavior of the great conductor Willem Furtwangler under Hitler's regime, is only secondarily about whether Furtwangler did or did not sympathize with the Nazis. The underlying subject is the relationship between art (specifically, music) and morality: should a great artist be expected to abandon his country in order to make a moral choice? or is his duty to keep art alive in society even if it means tolerating evil to do it? And if he chooses the latter course, how can we distinguish this from craven self-interest or even complicity? These are the questions posed to the characters and to us as viewers. A terrific and unusual film, but it will bother you if you are uncomfortable with the ambiguity at its center."
Furtwangler! A Conductor of Great Magnitude
B. Saines | Bklyn, N.Y. | 01/19/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I saw the play in N.Y. before I saw the movie. The late Raymond Massey Jr. played Furtwangler in the play version. With all due respect to Massey, there is no comparison to the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard. Skarsgard is the great Furtwangler! Am I a self-proclaimed authority on the conductor? No, not really, but I have read the three existing biographies about him. I tell you that Skarsgard, without a doubt, is as close to the conductor as possible. His portrayal is worth seeing the film alone! Harvey Keitel as the interogator, WHOA! Although there are several other fine actors in this film, Skarsgard and Keitel make seeing this film a must. If your a classical music buff, what are you waiting for? The central issue of this film was, did Furtwangler offer his artistic talents to the government and thus deemed a colaborator? Or, did he simply have a love for Germany and his art to the extent he felt he needed to stay in Germany as a symbol of his and other German citizens opposition to the Nazis. Although at times he made compromises with the government, as a whole he was clearly anti- Nazi and was about to be arrested by the SS for his support of Jewish muscians just before he left the country for Switzerland. You may think I'm too sympathetic to Furtwangler, but after reading three books, I'm both a supporter of the man and his art. So,I highly recommend you see the movie and decide for your self. Lastly, while your watching this film you will probably feel that he should have left Germany a long time ago, if he really wanted to do the "right thing". However, let me tell you something most people do not know about Furtwangler. He was told by the government at one point that if he left Germany at any time, his elderly mother would be put in jail! My source is from a book written by Yehudi Menuhin's dad. Those of you who know classical music are familiar with the close relationship between the Menuhin family and Furtwangler. See the movie, there was no one like Furtwangler!"