Taking Sides (Der Fall Furtwängler)

Directed by István Szabó, based on a play by Ronald Harwood


Released in 2001 in two versions: a bilingual version, released in Germany, and an English-only version in the US.

This film is based on actual historical events surrounding the effort to prosecute the great German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, as a Nazi collaborator following WWII. There are many unanswered questions as to why the prosecution targeted Furtwängler, who hated the Nazis, while giving a pass to Herbert von Karajan, who was actually a Nazi party member. The film alludes to a rivalry between Furtwängler and von Karajan, but does not explore this rather significant topic.

American actor Harvey Keitel plays the American military prosecutor, who is entirely ignorant of the issues involved, knows nothing of music, but is given an order by his superiors that he is to psychologically break and humiliate Furtwängler and gain a conviction. He has two assistants, an American soldier who is bilingual and Jewish, and a young German woman, daughter of an executed resistance leader, who serves as his secretary. Both of these characters play important roles in the drama, as they are increasingly appalled by the brutal tactics employed by Keitel's character.

The film explores some of the philosophical issues surrounding Furtwängler's decision to stay in Germany and conduct, when he had the option of fleeing the country. He saw his decision to remain and conduct as a means of defending his nation and its culture against the barbaric campaign of the Nazis to destroy it.

The part of Furtwängler is acted by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård; in Skarsgård's depiction, the conductor often appears somewhat befuddled by the predicament in which he finds himself. The script has one particularly poignant moment, from the standpoint of music: Furtwängler attends a performance of Franz Schubert's great String Quintet, in a theater which has been bombed during the war. In the middle of the performance it begins to rain upon the audience, because the ceiling has been destroyed, but Furtwängler, intent upon the music, does not notice. Someone in the seat behind him opens an umbrella and holds it over the great musician. Afterwards, Furtwängler mutters that at one point in the performance, the tempo was "too correct," which is just the sort of thing one might imagine Furtwängler saying.

This is a very provocative film which seeks to raise questions, not answer them. Keitel's character has misgivings about his assignment but, as a career military man, is stubbornly commiteed to carrying it out. He deals with his moral conflict by drinking like a fish. Furtwängler was exonerated in the end, but irreparable damage was done to his musical career.

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