Taking Sides (2001) or The Denazification of a Legend

Istvan Szabo’s Taking Sides tells the story of the so-called Denazification of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, Helmut Furtwängler. (As can be read in the Jewish Virtual Library Denazification was the name given to “the efforts made by the Allies to remove active members of the former National Socialist Party from official public office and influential positions in Germany after World War II.”). The events take place in post-war Berlin. Furtwängler was the conductor of the Berlin Philarmonic. Before going to trial he is being questioned by an American investigator, Major Arnold, who shows no mercy and treats him not much different from the way the Gestapo treated people they questioned. Whatever Furtwängler says is taken against him. When he has nothing to say it is taken against him as well. This is a witch-hunt. There is not much action in this movie that’s why the two actors had to be extremely good. And they are. Harvey Keitel as the self-righteous Major who conducts the investigation is excellent. But Stellan Skarsgard starring as Furtwängler is amazing. This is sublime acting. I always liked him but in this movie he proves to be capable of acting far beyond the average.

Furtwängler is accused to have been a member of the Nazi party, to have been friends with Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels. To have known what was going on but to choose to stay anyway. It becomes soon clear that none of this is true and therefore Major Arnold tries to prove him at least morally guilty. Even though he has helped many Jews to escape, Arnold thinks his staying is reproachable. There is a lot of food for thought in this movie. Furtwängler seems to have believed that music and art could better people and that it was his duty to stay. But he was also naïve to an incredible extent. An intellectual living in an ivory tower.

Before starting to question him and during the weeks of the interrogation Arnold watches movies of the concentration camps. The original footage we get to see is one of the most horrible I ever seen. A huge mass of naked emaciated bodies are being shoved away like dirt… This fuels Arnolds’s hatred and lets him lose the right perspective.

One of the best elements of the movie is the clash of these two personalities; the gentle, well-mannered, soft-spoken old-world artist and the aggressive, vulgar and ignorant American major.

The movie does not only take place in the interrogation room. We follow the two young assistants of the major (played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr), both German, one of Jewish origin and just returned from the States, on their outings in the city. This adds a further dimension to the film and we get a feel for post-war Berlin.

Taking Sides has also one of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen in a war movie. In an eerily beautiful scene we see an orchestra play in a ruin in the pouring rain.

As stated before, apart from being interesting, fascinating and underlined by beautiful classical recordings (Beethoven, Bruckner) this movie lives from the actors. The leading actors are outstanding but the supporting actors are very good too.

At times Taking Sides reminded me of Judgement at Nuremberg.

This is a movie for people interested in the post-war era, Denazification, classical music, Furtwängler and moral questions tied to WWII Germany. Is it understandable that Furtwängler stayed? Would it have been worse if all the good people had left? Are we allowed to think of self-preservation when faced with the mass destruction of others?

Instead of a trailer I decided to include a scene from the movie.

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7 thoughts on “Taking Sides (2001) or The Denazification of a Legend

  1. AnTiViRuS says:

    keep it real, right

  2. nem baj says:

    Sorry, I didn’t check your review before mentioning the film in my comment on Stauffenberg.

    The choice of architectural locations is great, as often with Szabó – using the Museum Insel, and in particular the Bode Museum before renovation, is fantastic. Yet, and even if I like this film, I think it suffers from a dissonance beetween Keitel’s and Skargard’s roles. They’re both great actors, but they don’t appear to me as if they were playing in the same movie.

    Keitel’s anti-intellectual, matter-of-fact , tough guy stance makes for a more realistic, less ‘morally towering’ position than Spencer Tracy’s. Yet his opponent lacks sharpness in his replies, and never questions Major Arnold’s moral grounds (nor do the assistants, by the way). In the end, I find the fight more interesting, dramatically speaking, in Judgement at Nuremberg.

    I like the part with the Russian officer very much… especially as it is now becomes obvious that Szabó was using his own biography. In 2006, it was revealed in the press that the director had been for several years a small informant of the Hungarian communist regime’s secret police… so I guess he knew what he was talking about, as far as artists and dictatorships were concerned!

    PS: the British-filmed ‘bulldozer’ images of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation were also in Resnais’ Night and Fog, though the shots selected from the same footage were less explicit.

    • I pictured Furtwängler different. As much as I like Skarsgard, his range isn’t that wide. In many of his roles he is quite similar and mumbling. I would have to watch a movie in which he speaks Swedish to find out if the fact that English isn’t his native language plays a role.
      Just in case – I reviewed Judgement at Nuremberg (and Night and Fog) as well. I should really work on that A – Z movie list page but it is so tiresome to do it.
      I need to watch this again and pay more atention to the architecture. I didn’t know anything about Szabó at all. That’s explains a lot.

  3. nem baj says:

    Be it the acting or the script, I think he appears to weak… especially for a symphonic conductor: even if he wasn’t known to be an absolute despot, this activity requires a huge ego!

    In the original play, Furtwängler says at some point: “Only tyrants understand the power of Art”…

    I remember reading that Ron Harwood, the playwright, wrote a few years ago another piece, ‘Collaboration’, about the relationship beetween Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig – another take at a complex subject.

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