István Szabó


This movie should have worked. It contains the elements of a good film – thoughtful writer/director, an interesting topic, two fine actors to lead the film. Put them all together, however, and there's something missing. The film may be called "Taking Sides" but it doesn't adequately describe either one. The characters are stiff and ill-defined. The detrimental effects of assumptions about cultures drive the film but rather than break them down, the film relies on stereotypes. The American is burly and abrupt, the Germans removed and artistic and the young couple will fall in love. It is disappointing when you consider what Taking Sides might have been.

After the Second World War, the various armies of the Allies descend on liberated Berlin. The Nuremberg trials are over and the tribunals to determine the guilt by action or association of ordinary citizens to the Nazi party has begun. The conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler, was never a member of the Party but performed for party functions and associated with members. The Philharmonic played for Hitler's birthday; the government bestowed honours on the Doctor, including member of the Privy Council. Should he be punished for staying in his country and continuing in his job? Does the fact that he is an artist and brings pleasure to the people exclude him from the same laws that govern everyone else?

Stellan Skarsgård as Furtwängler works wonders with the material he is given but without a textured script, there isn't much that he can do. Furtwängler is a broken man. We don't see the man who commanded his orchestra with authority – only someone afraid of his own shadow. It is a good allusion to the bombed out city of Berlin and fractured Germany. However, there is no growth of character. What we see at the end is only a slightly altered version of the man we first meet. "Taking Sides" feels more like a single thought than a well-rounded story.

Harvey Keitel's character of Major Steve Arnold doesn't fare much better. He has the unenviable task of portraying a crass American in a European film. His character, however, does have more range than Furtwängler. Beneath the affable "Call me Steve" exterior, he is a man on the verge of rage. He doesn't understand the customs of this country and remains an outsider. No matter who Keitel plays, he comes across as sinister. His laugh is too strong and comes after a moment's pause. He is someone who is trying too hard. Arriving with the belief that America is the saviour of the Western world and could do no wrong, he attacks his opponents with full strength. Steve doesn't acknowledge any errors in his ways or that his interrogation tactics resemble the Gestapo. Basically, he is the same man who walked in at the beginning of the film – except that he's had a chance to exact his vengeance.

That music and art is something that binds all Germans together – and separates them from others (namely Americans with Steve's insistence on calling Furtwängler a ‘bandleader' rather than conductor) – is an important point that needed more explanation. Szabó's use of music to describe the difference in culture does work well. Americans swing dance to big bands, exuberant music coming over army radio airwaves. The Germans sit quietly in bombed out buildings listening to string quartets. They are all lost in their own thoughts, deep in reflection. The Americans yell, the Germans remain tightlipped.

The Americans are told that they can never understand what it was like to live in Berlin during the Third Reich, especially the war years. That world was not always black and white. Emmi, Steve's German secretary, claims that they didn't know what was happening in the camps, that she didn't know until her own internment (after her father participated in a plot against Hitler near the end of the war). Keitel responds that he could smell the burning flesh four miles away, therefore, how could people not know? "You don't understand what it was like" is always the response. Well, then, tell us. Show us what their life was like during wartime. It is so important for us to see this side of the story because without it half the argument is invalid. Not just for Furtwängler but for Emmie and the other German citizens who look to the conductor with respect and admiration. In this light, the claim that music is above politics – or that it rises us above the mire of humanity – is hollow when compared to the immense tragedies that occurred.