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Taking Sides
     

Taking Sides

Director: István Szabó

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Moritz Bleibtreu

 
A provocative drama from the screenwriter of The Pianist, Taking Sides offers the story of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) -- whose contributions to the Nazi machine raise numerous questions decades after the fall of the Third Reich. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and offering audio in English Dolby Digital Stereo, this New

Overview

A provocative drama from the screenwriter of The Pianist, Taking Sides offers the story of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) -- whose contributions to the Nazi machine raise numerous questions decades after the fall of the Third Reich. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and offering audio in English Dolby Digital Stereo, this New Yorker release is sure to have viewers talking long after the credits have rolled. Extra features include an original theatrical trailer in addition to cast and crew interviews.Set in Germany in 1946, Taking Sides tells the story of the investigation of Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, by the American occupying army. Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) has been told by his superiors that they want Furtwängler convicted of being a willing participant in the crimes of the Hitler regime, by virtue of his supposed support for and support from the Hitler government. They haven't got the time or resources to go after every ex-Nazi, so they want Furtwängler, as the biggest cultural target they can hit. Arnold does his loud, boorish best to first humiliate and then attack the conductor over the supposed favoritism that he was shown by Hitler, Goering, Himmler, et al. and his conducting of a concert at the 1934 Nuremberg rally and at Hitler's 53rd birthday. Arnold finds, to his eventual distress but not dissuasion, that nothing is as simple as he would like to make it. His civilian secretary, Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr), a concentration camp survivor whose father was part of the German Army plot to kill Hitler, and Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), a German-born Jew representing the War Crimes Tribunal, keep trying to remind Arnold that life and politics in Germany only deteriorated gradually after 1933, and in ways that couldn't always be anticipated by those who were there. Germans who chose not to leave weren't necessarily casting their lot with Hitler, but with protecting what was decent or even great about Germany, including her orchestras and music. Arnold knows nothing about music and even less about Germany and her people, and won't be deterred from his goal. Wills and Straube wish to resign from working with him, until they realize that they're facing the same choice that Furtwängler faced -- to leave a horrendous situation and have no way of affecting its conduct or outcome, or remain and do their best to stand up for decency and truth. In the process of doing that, they find out that Furtwängler is not only a great artist -- which they knew already -- but a great and brave man, who also has his flaws. The latter include an outsized ego that may have caused him to participate a little too willingly at times in the dangerous game he played of maintaining the excellence of Germany's musical institutions while protecting them (and also many musicians) from the worst ravages of the Nazi regime, at the same time also keeping lesser, more compliant figures from usurping his control.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder
István Szabó's Taking Sides is that increasingly rare movie, a serious drama addressing moral and philosophical issues that were not only deeply relevant to their particular story and time (over 60 years ago), but are critical today as well. Surprisingly, given its 1946 setting and context, the movie doesn't demand too much in the way of prior knowledge from the viewer; all of the necessary information for the audience is conveyed smoothly in the unfolding of the action within the first several minutes. In the course of watching it, though, viewers are expected to make judgments on questions of history and morality, and weigh matters of decency and truth. But Taking Sides is by no means dry or overly cerebral; rather, it is imbued by passions that focus the drama and the history in a clear light, as searing as any life-and-death story might be. The question before U.S. Army Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) concerns the renowned orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), the greatest conductor in Germany, and perhaps the world, at the time: whether he was truly culpable as a Nazi supporter and as a willing participant in the musical life of the Hitler regime during the years 1933-1945, and if he bears any criminal liability for that participation. Arnold -- out of sheer mean-spiritedness growing out of his contempt for art and artists, and for Germans professing innocence, and at the behest of his superiors -- intends to determine the answer to be yes, and will stop at little or nothing to prove it. On the other side is Skarsgård's Furtwängler, who sincerely believed that by remaining in Germany under Hitler's regime, he could protect the Berlin Philharmonic and German musical life (and, later, the Vienna Philharmonic), and German musicians and even Jewish musicians, from the worst excesses of the Nazis. In doing so, he became a seeming symbol of Nazi cultural triumph; whether he was a willing Nazi sympathizer or an idealistic German patriot is what must be sorted out. Taking Sides, adapted by screenwriter Ronald Harwood from his own play, plunges us head-first into this subject, which is still a matter of hot debate. We're presented with an array of viewpoints and see them stacked up against the historical record, and held up to the cold light of day as surely as they might be at any trial. Szabó and Harwood do this so skillfully that it seems much less a history lesson than a superb courtroom drama, with all of the dramatic tension that the comparison implies, and even some skillful and highly charged use of music. Szabó utilizes not only Beethoven and Bruckner, but also Bobby Troup and the then-new song "Route 66" to illustrate the gap between the two sides making this argument, and the supposed differences, in Arnold's eyes, between Germans and Americans. The audience is caught between Arnold's boorish, bull-like determination, which is fed by his hubris as a representative of the victorious Allies, and Furtwängler's aloof philosophical detachment and confusion at this attack on his character (a product of his naïve view of politics and his idealized view of art), and they are plunged for 105 minutes into a boiling, verbally violent debate, set amidst the ruins of postwar Germany, circa 1946, that is nearly as visually stunning as it is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Indeed, Szabó and Harwood avoid making Taking Sides into a talk-fest by broadening the setting from the original play and putting the camera in motion, showing us the misery and near-starvation conditions surrounding the participants in this investigation, the wretchedness of the German people in the immediate postwar period, and the ruins of their country, as well as the surviving natural beauty of the countryside. We also see the visual record of the death camps and the slaughtered millions, and glimpse the heroism of some Germans. Woven into the tale is the spirit of reconciliation embodied in one German-Jewish American officer (Moritz Bleibtreu), and the painful honesty of an honored daughter (Birgit Minichmayr) of an anti-Hitler martyr, who admits that her revered father never thought to move against Hitler until it became clear that Germany was losing the war. All of this might seem very didactic, but Harwood knows his history and is not lacking in a sense of humor. He includes a subplot involving the rivalry between the Soviets and the Americans for bragging rights in occupied Berlin, and also, more broadly, a palpable sense of the clash of nationalities and perceptions. Between the British and the Americans, it's momentarily comical, but between the Americans and the Germans (even those sympathetic to the American cause), it has consequences of tragic proportions. And finally, there is the music -- no drama about Wilhelm Furtwängler could go far without employing music to maximum effect, and Szabó doesn't fall short here. There are enough snatches of Beethoven and even Bruckner at his most accessible to illustrate what is needed for the uninitiated, and the music is all woven so well within the framework of the film that it speeds it along, adding tension and grace (and one strange change of mood, at the scene where the Bruckner piece comes in). The acting is uniformly excellent -- Keitel makes a first-rate heavy, moving like an angry bull in the proverbial china shop, the embodiment of the word "overzealous" in his investigation. Stellan Skarsgård as Furtwängler is his match, a quietly suffering, essentially gentle man who discovers that, while he was brave and even heroic at times, he may also have compromised his ideals in the process and succumbed to some of the temptations offered him -- even Furtwängler's rivalry with the young Herbert von Karajan is addressed in the screenplay. Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr are equally impressive in roles that effectively make them stand-ins for the audience, caught between the two antagonists and seeking the truth that lies somewhere in that chasm. And Oleg Tabakov is very effective, funny, and even touching as Soviet Army Colonel Dymshitz, who has yet another agenda, imposed from his superiors, with which to contend. Taking Sides is ultimately one of the most effective film dramas ever built around the subject of music and musicians.

Product Details

Release Date:
04/27/2004
UPC:
0717119880446
Original Release:
2001
Rating:
NR
Source:
New Yorker Video

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Harvey Keitel Maj. Steve Arnold
Stellan Skarsgård Wilhelm Furtwangler
Moritz Bleibtreu Lt. David Wills
Birgit Minichmayr Emmi Straube
Oleg Tabakov Col. Dymshits
Ulrich Tukur Helmut Rode
Hanns Zischler Rudolf Werner
August Zirner Capt. Ed Martin
Robin Renucci Capt. Vernay
R. Lee Ermey Gen. Wallace
Frank Leboeuf Actor
Armin Rohde Actor
Jed Curtis Actor
Daniel Whire Actor
Rinat Shaham Actor

Technical Credits
István Szabó Director
Ronald Harwood Screenwriter
Lajos Koltai Cinematographer
Yves Pasquier Producer

Scene Index

Original theatrical trailer; Scene selections; Cast and crew interviews

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