Ronald Harwood did a fine job scripting the story of a Polish Jewish musician’s agonized survival of the Nazi era in “The Pianist,” and in “Mephisto,” director Istvan Szabo made a bracing melodrama about a stellar actor caught in the Hitler madness. But their collaboration on “Taking Sides” is a basket of old thorns.
Set in the ruined Berlin of 1945-46, this is a confrontation drama loaded with weighty matters. Stellan Skarsgaard plays the fabled, profoundly intuitive German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who became a prize pet of the Nazi regime even as he saved the lives of Jewish musicians (in Germany the film’s wistful title is “Der Fall Furtwangler”).
Harvey Keitel acts blustery Maj. Steve Arnold, a former insurance investigator delegated by his even more abrasive superior (R. Lee Ermey) to hound the musician as a morally blind Nazi stooge. The drama pit is Arnold’s office in a grand old building, with two witnessing innocents who are not quite naive: Lt. Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), a Jewish officer of German background who sympathizes with Furtwangler and works covertly with his defense; and Arnold’s young secretary, Emmi (Birgit Minichmayr), a sensitive soul who admits her father only turned against Hitler when he began losing the war.
Skarsgaard looks little like the conductor, who had the towering charisma of a balding stork on stilts. He does depict a man in despair, partly from guilt (he knows he compromised), partly from inability to continue the work that is life to him, partly because he is eloquent with music, not words.
He is stunned by the cocky, philistine Arnold, and we can empathize. Keitel plays the major as a promotion from his “Bad Lieutenant.” His hatred of Furtwangler seems heavily fueled by cultural resentment — as if the maestro’s devotion to great music deepened his moral failings.
Steve Arnold seems related to Tom Arnold, yet not as funny. He’s a sneering bully who enjoys making the vulnerable old artist squirm and sweat. He proves his democratic credentials by asking Emmi to jitterbug (she demurs) and by getting drunk with a sly Soviet officer, finely acted by Oleg Tabakov.
The settings are impressive, the issues complex, but Szabo directed in a square, pile-driving way, true to Harwood’s script. To back up Arnold’s indignation, there are repeat shots of corpses being bulldozed at a death camp.
Furtwangler was a podium mystic who identified his nation with its sublime musical heritage, but Arnold treats him as “an airy-fairy intellectual” and almost as a two-faced idiot. Keitel is a ramrod, and Maj. Arnold is such a brazen cartoon of the Ugly American abroad, a cultural lightweight and proud of it, that even when he scores credible points you may wince.
Why didn’t Furtwangler leave in the ’30s? Well, because many people — including the great German Jewish composer in exile, Arnold Schoenberg — urged him to stay in the Reich. And his appointment by the New York Philharmonic was wrecked by protests. Toscanini already ruled America, Britain was not welcoming and Furtwangler was, if no Nazi, a dreamy yet rooted patriot.
“Taking Sides” takes Arnold’s side, while patronizing Furtwangler with pity. But Arnold, for all his self-righteous horse sense, is also pitiful. He seems unable to imagine what such a unique artist meant to people, even to Nazis who, not being total devils, had good taste in music.