Hungarian director Istvan Szabo has returned with a new film, Taking Sides, based on a play by Ronald Harwood. Taking Sides is inspired by the particular case of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to discuss the broader problem of art vs politics. Back in the 1930s when Hitler came to power in Germany, many of that country’s leading artists chose to flee Germany; just in the field of cinema you had people like Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder preferring exile to life under the Nazi dictatorship.
Many others stayed, though, and Wilhelm Furtwangler was among them. As a result, at the end of the war when Germany was blown to hell and the Allies were in command, many of them were in official strife over their Nazi connections. This, then, is the background for Harwood’s play, which basically asks should an artist be condemned for remaining in a country they love even when that country is overtaken by a totalitarian regime and they don’t have much choice but to serve it.
The dominating figure in this account, though, is actually a US Army major played by Harvey Keitel, who’s basically been charged with the responsibility of persecuting Furtwängler (played by Stellan Skarsgard), trying to pin Nazi associations on him despite the fact that he’s been de-Nazified by the Allies already. Stellan Skarsgard plays Furtwangler, but although the story’s nominally about him, Keitel is by far the more prominent character, and the exaggeratedness of his performance only adds to that impression.
Szabo and Harwood end by vehemently condemning Furtwängler for not leaving Germany with the advent of the Nazis, but, ultimately, I think Taking Sides only makes a show of coming down against Furtwangler. Skarsgard doesn’t get nearly enough time on screen so Furtwängler is never a particularly memorable character and never gets to offer much of a self-defence; but by the same token, the major is such a shit of a person, such a monstrously hateful figure, that you come out on Furtwangler’s side anyway, and the basic injustice of the set-up (the whole assumption of guilt thing with the US setting out not to find whether or not Furtwängler was a Nazi but to prove that he was) only adds to that.
So if Szabo and Harwood think they’re making some statement about the political responsibilities of artists, unfortunately they undermine themselves by this somewhat ambiguous handling of the situation. Plus the film never quite escapes its theatrical origins, which become particularly overt in the concluding scenes as Szabo seems to lose control and Keitel wildly overplays his part. The whole thing is suffused by a feeling of somewhat stodgy European arthouse prestige that doesn’t really help much either.
If you like Harvey Keitel then he offers a bravura performance here to say the least, which may be reason enough for you to check out Taking Sides. Other than that, I can’t say that it comes particularly recommended.