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A tale based on the life of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic whose tenure coincided with the controversial Nazi era. One of the most spectacular and renowned conductors of the 30s, Furtwangler's reputation rivaled that of Toscanini's. After the war, he was investigated as part of the Allies' de-Nazification programme. In the bombed-out Berlin of the immediate post-war period, the Allies slowly bring law and order--and justice--to bear on an occupied Germany. An American major is given the Furtwangler file, and is told to find everything he can and to prosecute the man ruthlessly. Tough and hard-nosed, Major Steve Arnold sets out to investigate a world of which he knows nothing. Orchestra members vouch for Furtwangler's morality--he did what he could to protect Jewish players from his orchestra. To the Germans, deeply respectful of their musical heritage, Furtwangler was a demigod; to Major Arnold, he is just a lying, weak-willed Nazi. Written by
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A Good But Not Great Exploration of the Nature of Good in Times of Evil
There are two constituencies for director Istvan Szabo's "Taking Sides," a story of famed conductor (and not so well known composer) Wilhelm Furtwangler's accountability for his actions in Germany and occupied Europe during World War II. One is a relatively small coterie of devoted classical music lovers, few of whom are old enough to have ever seen the maestro conduct but who know his penetratingly brilliant conducting through recordings. The larger audience is attracted to unending and largely unresolvable issues of good versus evil and the degree to which one is responsible for the atrocities committed by a society but not by the individual who serves some of its needs.
Wilhelm Furtwangler was a world-heralded conductor before World War II. Along with a handful of European podium titans - Mengelberg, Walter, Klemperer and Toscanini - these men in essence controlled classical music, both with regard to concert programming and the rapidly developing technological advances of the phonograph disc.
With the rise of fascism, some conductors, composers and musicians fled the grasp of tyrannous regimes. A few, like Toscanini, had little choice (a beating administered by Italian thugs as payment for his refusing to honor Mussolini from the stage was a fair indication that New York offered better prospects). Walter and Klemperer decamped, their careers boosted by their strong anti-Nazi stances. Mengelberg collaborated, essentially ruining his career when victory came (his is a complex case still debated).
Furtwangler, with many opportunities to leave, didn't. Indeed his conducting during the Third Reich was without doubt the hallmark of German classical music during those twelve indescribably dark years. Why didn't he leave? He knew that culture was being obliterated by the stroke of a pen or a dictator's speech. Mendelssohn, whose works he had often performed, was now a non-existent presence in German music. Beethoven and Bruckner, composers Furtwangler loved, were deified for political purposes. Did he believe his presence would preserve essential elements of the German music heritage until a better day?
"Taking Sides" addresses Furtwangler's role and focuses, with flashbacks, on an American major's investigation - shrill, unsophisticated, uncultured American Philistine at its best (worst?) - of Furtwangler's role. A former insurance investigator called to the colors, Harvey Keitel's major is effective as the kind of American officer that many of us have encountered overseas, usually with embarrassment. He is a tenacious bulldog gripping on to a prey he can never truly understand. And he doesn't want to anyway. His savage, histrionic pursuit of Furtwangler blurs the portrayal of the complex conductor.
Stellan Skarsgard is Furtwangler, alternately triumphant on the podium, disturbed by inner doubts and mortifyingly humiliated by the major's treatment which would have been appropriate for investigating a Gestapo officer or a concentration camp commandant. The rest of the cast acts well but their supportive and in some instances distractive roles add little.
A romance between an idealistic American lieutenant who proclaims he is a man of culture before he is a Jew and a winsome fraulein is unrealistic, is irrelevant, not even interesting. "Taking Sides" is a somewhat less sophisticated descendant of Spencer Tracy and Maximillian Schell's blazing encounter in "Judgment at Nuremberg" Schell, acting the part of a judge in Nazi Germany who slowly accepted the abnegation of the rule of law, was forced to confront his true contribution to evil. Spencer Tracy saw to that and, in any event, Harvey Keitel is no Tracy.
Furtwangler in the film is never suspected, much less accused of any crime other than being a championed symbol of German "kultur." That was not a war crime and in reality figures like Furtwangler and composer Richard Strauss (another difficult case) were processed through denazification proceedings fairly quickly and usually were cleared. Some were not (Mengelberg, for example).
The problem with "Taking Sides," beyond its simplistic polarization, is that it does not address, and perhaps could not, the complexity of the role of classical music and musicians in the ideology of Nazism. Furtwangler may not have known of extermination camps and he certainly hurt no Jews (indeed, the record is clear that he saved some Jewish musicians as did Mengelberg) but he must internally have abhorred the Nazi extinction of music by composers such as Mendelssohn and contemporary composers whose works were denounced as "entartete musik" (degenerate music). And more than a few of the composers in the latter class were murdered during the regime. Furtwangler definitely knew that composers and musicians disappeared with no forwarding addresses.
Keitel and Skarsgard act out a morality inquisition that does provoke the viewer to think and question but the ultimate issue, should Furtwangler have fled, is irritatingly vague. Did Furtwangler "take sides" in any meaningful sense? Did he stay beyond the point where leaving was an option? Maybe. Can we, should we, expect composers and conductors to be like Leonard Bernstein, outspoken advocates on every issue? Is that fair?
German conductors had powerful patrons and without doubt Furtwangler's brilliant conducting served the interests of both the leaders and audiences that hungered, through bombings and the approach of defeat, for some relief through music. I have a recording of Furtwangler conducting Beethoven's magisterial Ninth Symphony in Berlin where anti-aircraft fire and bombs can be heard. What did it take for Londoners and Berliners to listen to great music at their imminent mortal peril? "Taking Sides" could have explored the almost mystical relationship between Furtwangler and his audiences. It doesn't really do that although the adulation in which he was held is depicted.
A very fine biography by Shirakawa, "The Devil's Musician," largely rescues Furtwangler from accusations of sympathy with the Nazi regime and he clearly was a much finer fellow than his young rival, Herbert von Karajan. Von Karajan was destined to be a great conductor but he was also a first-class careerist who joined the Nazi party to advance his prospects (and lied about it for years until confronted with the evidence).
Anyone seriously interested in classical music during the Third Reich must read Douglas Kater's three-volume, well-written and extensively researched history of that period. For now, "Taking Sides" is good but not great drama. Selections of music by Bruckner and Beethoven as well as by Glenn Miller and George Gershwin (the latter two decidedly not Nazi favorites) are prominent. Hopefully the movie will impel those unfamiliar with an unsurpassed interpreter of wonderful music to seek out readily available and gripping recordings.
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