DVD Movie Review: Taking Sides (2001)

Questionable conduct?

It’s a question that will probably haunt the German people forever – who knew? How much did they know? And how many of them turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust? These are the questions at the heart of ‘based on a true story’ Taking Sides (2001) by István Szabó (Sunshine (1999), Mephisto (1981)), and the man in the dock is acclaimed and controversial conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), who chose to remain in Nazi Germany during World War II and, furthermore, had alleged ‘associations’ with Nazi high command. Well, the war is over, and the Americans are very keen to bring justice to bear on the Nazi party, and Furtwängler’s is just the calibre of scalp that they are after. The hard-nosed Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is given permission to move without let or hindrance in his efforts to prosecute the beleaguered conductor, who has not been able to work while the investigation is proceeding. The former members of Furtwängler’s orchestra are at pains to vouch for his morality and the fact that he even assisted Jews during the war, but is this the whole story?

Clearly not, as Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own play delineates with more than a little flair and passion. The clash at the heart of the story is provided by Arnold’s young assistants Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr) and Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), both of whom at first provide dilligent support to Arnold in his quest for the truth, but by slow degrees find their sympathies moving towards Furtwängler. Straube’s own father is revered as a national hero, as he was one of the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler near the war’s end but, as she herself says: ‘He only took part because he knew we couldn’t win the war.’ So, was Furtwängler wrong to stay? Did he play for Hitler’s birthday? And why was he honoured by Goebels?

Keitel is very well cast as Arnold, while Skarsgård brings a rare sensitivity to his portrayal – the simplistic, but entirely justified, notions of right and wrong at the story’s core are well developed by the narrative and performances, but I must admit to having a problem with Keitel’s character ultimately emerging as being the closest of the pair to a Nazi-esque interrogator, so driven is he by his horror for what the Nazis perpetrated (as is demonstrated, perhaps too frequently, by shocking footage from the death camps).

Ultimately, the question posed by the film is whether any good can be achieved by attempting to work within a system, no matter how abhorrent, rather than leaving it to its own devices. It is this that Furtwängler claims he did, working to preserve something honourable in German culture through his work. A question for each of us, and one that the film manages to evince in a mostly honourable fashion.

108 mins.

4 thoughts on “DVD Movie Review: Taking Sides (2001)”

  1. The film was very thin on Furtwängler. I was hoping to learn more about such a revered conductor. Those who worked with him praise him to the heights – including the wonderful Yehudi Menuhin, hear the man himself here. In the film, he seems very flat – maybe he was like this, but I didn’t really get an understanding of his charisma.

    It also felt very much like a play, rather than a film – maybe the director/screenwriter respected the play too much. The relationship between David and Emmi doesn’t add much to the plot. Other than this, it was alright, but with such interesting subject matter it could have been much better.

    I’m looking forward to the film of the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn – I am sure that someone has bought the film rights. Whereas Taking Sides is about art over politics Copenhagen, though different in other ways, is science over politics. Someone will rightly criticize me for oversimplifying, but what the hell, publish and be damned!

  2. Publish you have, C, damned you shall not be! 😉 Definitely a film I will be watching again, not because I enjoyed it *so* much (though, I believe, I did enjoy it more than you), but because I agree with the points you make – I will read up on Furtwängler, then come back and see how well Skarsgård’s performance actually bears up to the reality of the man, fair enough?

    However, to be fair, I feel there is definitely enough here to interest those who are perhaps more interested in the essential study of human good and evil that the film tries to represent, rather than whether the central character is suitably fleshed out. Do you agree? 🙂

  3. No. While I agree that it is interesting to explore the issue, why just make use of Furtwängler as a prop? It’s a missed opportunity.

    I also think basing a film around someone who did live incurs an added level of responsibility – or there should be many health warnings at the beginning of the film. I am similarly ill at ease with other films that fictionalize real people – The Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) comes to mind. The executives behind The Tudors asked:’Is any of this true?’ When given a ‘yes, some of it’, that was good enough for them. Is this OK? I’m not sure.

    If you go back five centuries, does it make it OK? Another wonderful example, in its awfulness, is U-571 (2000) (again Harvey Keitel – he will throw truth to the wind for a good role, and he is a fine actor) is it OK that the plot is changed to a World War II German submarine being boarded by United States Navy submariners, although it was in fact the Royal Navy? So, over to you. I am sure there are many arguments on both sides of this one, and I would like to hear them…

  4. Hello again C,

    Thanks indeed for the interesting discussion – I agree, plenty of pros and cons with this one.

    I have not actually seen U-571, but I agree that if they changed the premise to that extent, I a not happy. However, do you really think its is fair to place Taking Sides in the same category?

    I sense that you know a great deal more about Furtwängler than I do, and fair enough, but I still believe that the film was successful in its presentation of what the Germans did or did not know, and how membership of the Nazi party quickly became something to discard after Germany lost. And, really, how could you blame Germans for wanting to preserve their own safety? With an institution as monstrous as Hitler’s party was, it was better to be seen to belong. Note again Emmi’s comment about her own father – I believe that this is key.

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