With considerable intelligence and discernment, Istvan Szabo’s film of Ronald Harwood’s (The Pianist) play, Taking Sides, tackles the thorny subject of the “de-Nazification” of high-profile artists who had remained in Germany during the war.
However, the film deals from a stacked deck and only touches on the questions of who was “certified” as OK, who wasn’t, and why. Taking Sides focuses on the case of Germany’s greatest prewar orchestra conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard, Exorcist: The Beginning). According to the film, the U.S. government — or more specifically, Gen. Wallace (R. Lee Ermey) — wanted to bring down the conductor, as an example to the Germans.
The film makes it clear from the onset that Wallace was not interested in Furtwangler’s guilt or innocence as a Nazi collaborator. His point was to rub the noses of the German people in the conductor’s disgrace. To bring about this result, Wallace assigns the case to a former insurance adjuster, Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), a man of no imagination and even less tact. The film makes no bones about the fact that other persons in the arts were more obviously guilty of collaboration than was Furtwangler, whose specific sin was to be a big enough public figure to warrant bringing down.
Fair enough, but the drama neatly sidesteps the fact that there were bigger public figures who were more culpable — the composer Richard Strauss comes to mind — who were officially “de-Nazified,” thereby overlooking the true hypocrisy at work. An artist who was too small wasn’t sufficiently important on a P.R. level to merit much attention, while an artist who was too great was more likely to get a free pass. Furtwangler, on the other hand, was just right.
Setting this reservation to one side, though, this is a film of some considerable power, thanks primarily to the brilliant performance of Skarsgard, who manages to make the character sympathetic without making him blameless. He balances the over-the-top nastiness displayed by Keitel’s Arnold — a characterization that goes too far to allow any room for the other viewpoint. Occasionally maddening but always thought-provoking, this is a film that ought to be far better known than it is.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Taking Sides on Sunday, March 13 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the second light onto Thompson St., and follow to end.)]