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Taking Sides (2001)

Der Fall Furtwängler (Austria), Taking Sides - Der Fall Furtwängler (Germany), Taking sides - Le cas Furtwängler (France)

Fine acting and a provocative script

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 103 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay for ‘Taking Sides’, adapted from his own play, is the perfect companion piece to his previous, Academy Award winning script for The Pianist. Both are based on true stories about the life of musicians in the second World War, and both begin with a musical performance being curtailed by an explosion. Yet while the central character in ‘The Pianist’, Wladyslaw Szpilman, was a Polish Jew whose musical career was cut short with the Geman invasion of Poland and began again only after the fall of the Nazi regime, by contrast the subject of ‘Taking Sides’ is Dr Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose career as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra thrived under the Nazis, and was interrupted only by the arrival of the Allies, when he fell under suspicion for Nazi collaboration.

In addressing the morally ambiguous relationship of art and politics under Nazism, director István Szabó is revisiting the theme of his Oscar-winning ‘Mephisto’ – and it is an uncanny coincidence that this film should be released in the same year as the death of Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial director who always defended her Nazi propaganda films like ‘Triumph of the Will’ (an excerpt of which is shown in ‘Taking Sides’) on the grounds that they were art, and denied that she was ever a Nazi.

Instead of showing Furtwängler’s wartime experiences directly, ‘Taking Sides’ presents a subsequent investigation into his conduct, and so allows a number of different perspectives on the man to emerge. The case against him is offered by his American investigator, Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), an odious philistine who clearly relishes being able to exercise his petty power over the maestro, and whose character and operational methods are parallelled throughout with those used by Hitler and the Gestapo. Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), on the other hand, is made a highly sympathetic figure, worshipped by the witnesses from his own orchestra and quietly resistant to Hitler’s regime. Even Arnold’s aides (played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr), who had both suffered greatly under Hitler, end up siding with Furtwängler against their boss. Yet for all his brutish bias, Arnold seems driven at least in part by a genuine disgust for the Holocaust, and a failure to understand how a nation could allow it to happen – and amidst all his browbeating and unreasonableness, there are some questions he asks which are not easily answered.

In the end we are shown two sides of an argument, between one man severely compromised by his circumstances, and another who will allow no compromise. The final, ambiguous sequence is black and white footage of the real Furtwängler on the podium, using a cloth to wipe the right hand which Hitler has just shaken, and we are left to reach our own verdict and take our own side – is this a display of brave defiance from a man with little room for manoeuvre, or the hand-washing of a Pilate, refusing to accept his complicity in an inhuman system?

It's Got: Fine acting, a provocative script, and the sort of uncomfortable ambiguities that prompt each of us to confront the fascist, or the collaborator, in ourselves

It Needs: to betray its stageplay origins a little less (although the restricted number of sets does add to the sense of claustrophobia)


A highly political piece of art about the relationship of art and politics – outstanding, and never more relevant.