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.