Taking Sides

A sure-fire argument starter, Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's dramatization of a real-life investigation poses tricky questions and tries to avoid providing easy answers. Can art be separated from politics? Do artists have political responsibilities? What if the artist is one of the 20th century's foremost conductors of Wagner, and the political regime...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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A sure-fire argument starter, Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's dramatization of a real-life investigation poses tricky questions and tries to avoid providing easy answers. Can art be separated from politics? Do artists have political responsibilities? What if the artist is one of the 20th century's foremost conductors of Wagner, and the political regime is Hitler's? Widely considered one of the great maestros of his generation, Dr. Wilhelm Furtwangler did not, like many other musicians, leave his homeland once Hitler came to power in 1933. In fact, he appeared to thrive; not only did Furtwangler tour Europe with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but Herman Goering appointed him a Prussian Privy Council and he was made vice-president of the Chamber of Music of the Third Reich by Josef Goebbels. While Furtwangler never joined the Nazi party, he was known to have made ugly, anti-Semitic statements. More damning in the eyes of the post-war Allied investigators, he performed at official Nazi functions, including the Fuhrer's birthday celebration. But Furtwangler's defenders say he refused to honor Hitler with the Nazi salute and used his connections to intervene on behalf of hundreds of Jews who would otherwise have been murdered in concentration camps. Szabo approaches his subject like a police inquiry: Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) is ordered, as part of the Allied effort to root out major players in Nazi politics, industry and culture, to connect Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard) to the Nazi party in preparation for Furtwangler's appearance before the de-Nazification tribunal. Arnold interviews members of the Berlin Philharmonic, none of whom seem to be telling the entire truth, before interrogating Furtwangler himself. Was Furtwangler truly an artist above politics, who kept the flame of German culture burning through those nightmare years? Or was he simply "the devil's bandleader"? Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) presents both sides of the issue, but the balance is upset by Keitel's overbearing performance, which is as crude as Skarsgard's is subtle. Keitel's Major Arnold is a bully whose bluster can't compete with Furtwangler's quiet dignity or, for that matter, the soundtrack, which features recordings, made at the height of Hitler's power, of Furtwangler conducting Beethoven. But it's a thought-provoking film nonetheless: Be sure to stay for the coda, a damning piece of newsreel that casts much of what went before in a whole new light.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: A sure-fire argument starter, Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's dramatization of a real-life investigation poses tricky questions and tries to avoid providing easy answers. Can art be separated from politics? Do artists have political responsibilities? Wha… (more)

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