"Fate knocking on the door" is how Beethoven supposedly described the opening four-note motif of his Fifth Symphony. Those four notes also open Taking Sides, IstvÃn SzÃbÃ's point-counterpoint fictional film about Wilhelm FurtwÃngler, the world-famous German conductor who, not being Jewish, chose to stay in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. FurtwÃngler never joined the Nazi Party, and he helped scores of Jewish musicians stay out of harm's way. But Goebbels and Goering nevertheless exploited his stature as the jewel in the crown of Teutonic culture. Then, da-da-da-dum, fate knocked on the door: Germany lost the war. And FurtwÃngler, who'd always tried to float above politics, was forced to appear before the American Denazification Committee, his very own Judgment at Nuremberg.
He was cleared, it should be pointed out, given that Taking Sides goes after him like an attack dog. Harvey Keitel's Major Steve Arnold does, anyway. Presumably a fictional character, Arnold is your classic ugly American. He's never even heard of FurtwÃngler, and yet, egged on by a superior officer who wants to make an example of the conductor, he exclaims, "I'm gonna get that fucking bandleader." And thus begins a series of exchanges between Arnold and Stellan Skarsgard's FurtwÃngler -- a pretrial investigative process that, as the movie wears on, comes to seem more and more like an interrogation by the Gestapo. Exactly what SzÃbÃ and scriptwriter Ronald Harwood are up to in making Arnold such a pit bull is finally revealed at the very end of the movie, when the real FurtwÃngler literally shows his hand.
Personally, that didn't cause me to take sides. But the movie has just enough push and pull in it to keep us guessing which side it's on. It also keeps us wondering what we'd have done in FurtwÃngler's place. Neither a hero nor a coward, he seems like the rest of us, except he's a revered artist, which turns him into a symbol of both German superiority and German defeat. And Skarsgard beautifully captures both sides of the equation. His FurtwÃngler is a once-proud man who's been humbled by fate, the occasional cries of defiance quickly stifled by Arnold's interminable barking. It's not much of a match, in purely rhetorical, debating-society terms; Arnold's all hot air. But most of the arguments, pro and con, nevertheless get read into the record. Whether he wants it or not, FurtwÃngler has his day in court.
Alas, his defense is a weak one: He claims to have stayed in Germany in order to keep the flame of civilization burning during its darkest hours. Only an artist could make that kind of argument, and Taking Sides, when it's not sifting through the evidence of FurtwÃngler's Nazi ties, expands into a philosophy lesson about the age-old war between art and politics. SzÃbÃ, who's been here before -- his 1982 film, Mephisto, is about a German actor who willingly embraces the Nazis, using them to advance his career -- can't seem to forgive artists for not being all that interested in politics. And maybe he shouldn't. FurtwÃngler ultimately admitted he should have left Germany as soon as the Nazis seized power, in 1933. Instead, he stayed home and accepted, if never quite embraced, his fate as Hitler's favorite conductor.