Dir. Istvan Szabo. France, Germany. 2011.

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Bombs can be heard in the distance as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is being performed in a church in Berlin near the end of World War II. The conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, continues the performance despite the wailing of air raid sirens and a spotlight scanning the windows. It is only a power failure and a darkened hall that ends the concert. Back in his room, the conductor is warned by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, that it might be better if he take a trip out of the country and “get some rest.”

This scene opens the film Taking Sides, a fictional account of the investigation by Allied officials at the end of the war to find and punish Nazi collaborators as part of its “De-Nazification” program. No musician could work professionally until they had been cleared by the Allies and Dr. Furtwangler, who had remained in Germany during the war, was no exception. Directed by Istvan Szabo and based on a play by Ronald Harwood who also wrote the screenplay, the pre-trial investigation focuses on the role of the artist in a totalitarian society, specifically, whether it is more effective to leave the country in protest or remain to work against the oppressive government from within.

The film relies heavily on three interrogation session conducted in an office above a museum between an overbearing investigator, U.S. Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), and a proud but humbled Furtwangler, perhaps the greatest conductor of his time and the last, great exponent of the German Romantic school. Under orders from his superior, a U.S. general (R. Lee Ermey), to “nail the bandleader” and hold all Germans responsible for their war crimes, Arnold keeps Furtwangler waiting outside his office, contemptuously calls him “Wilhelm” and talks to him as if he was personally responsible for the gassing of millions of Jews.

Arnold’s aides, Lt David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), a repatriated German Jew, and Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr), the daughter of an officer who was executed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, support the investigation but eventually express their distaste for Arnold’s methods and try to bring a sense of compassion to the proceedings. Though the film engages in spurious speculations such as whether or not Furtwangler's secretary procured women for his pleasure before each concert and whether damaging evidence lurks in a "Hinkel archive,” the real thorn of contention is that the conductor remained in Germany during the war while other famous conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Busch, Bruno Walter, and Erich Kleiber left. Some were Jews who had no choice. Others left out of conscience.

As the prosecution shows newsreel clips of victims of the holocaust being thrown into mass graves, Furtwangler, a deeply conflicted man, becomes more and more on the defensive. When he is brutally questioned by Arnold about the high posts he accepted in the government, the concert he gave to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and the fact that his recording of the Adagio from the Bruckner Seventh was broadcast to the nation after Hitler’s suicide, Furtwangler says that no one who was not in his shoes could appreciate “the tightrope he walked between exile and the gallows.” He asserts that he was only a pawn in the power struggle between Goebbels and Goring, and that his continued presence in Germany was desperately needed to keep the spirit of resistance alive and nourish the soul of the German people in the midst of barbarism.

In support of their conductor, musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic testify that Furtwangler was a man of high ideals who disdained politics, refused to join the Nazi Party, give the Nazi salute, or conduct concerts in Nazi-occupied countries, and helped countless Jewish musicians in need of money, employment, or an exit visa out of Germany. Though strong points are made on both sides, Szabo stacks the deck in one direction by portraying the major as a bullying and cynical Philistine in contrast to the intelligent and highly articulate artist (not the case in real life). By the time of the final session, Arnold has descended into little more than a self-righteous bully.

The film ends with a postscript. It is Berlin, 1942, a different world than any of us know. The conductor is the real Wilhelm Furtwangler, a tall, gaunt looking man with only a patch of hair on his balding head standing astride the podium, a baton in his hand. In the audience are Nazis Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Conducting a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a work of titanic spiritual struggle, Furtwangler does everything to guide the orchestra towards the realization of Beethoven’s humanity. The musicians, however, as if possessed, unleash every ounce of the work’s inner fury with reckless abandon.

A long scream echoes through the hall, Alle Menschen warden Bruder, Wo dein sanfter Flugel weilt! (all human beings become brothers wherever your gentle wing is). In this setting, the words could not be more steeped in irony. It is an ode to joy but there is no joy, only a cry of pain reflecting the outrage, the hopelessness of the moment. It is the tormented expression of an orchestra and its conductor saying farewell to a country and a promise they can no longer believe in. Though Furtwangler was eventually exonerated, exhausted and overwhelmed by the weight of memory, unable to protect his reputation in spite of support from many Jewish artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, the greatness that rightfully belonged to him would forever remain elusive.


Howard Schumann

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