Taking Sides

Taking Sides (15)

The jury is still out on Wilhelm Furtwangler, the upper crust German composer who, following the Nazis’ rise to power in the Thirties, became Hitler’s favourite musician.

So embedded was Furtwangler in the Allies’ eyes at the end of WW2 that he became the focus of an aggressive investigation as part of their ‘de-Nazification’ programme.

Playwright Ronald (The Dresser) Harwood turned the drama into a hit stage play; here he adapts that from theatrical whodunnit to emotional, claustrophobic film drama as Swedish star Stellan Skarsgård, playing Furtwangler, and Harvey Keitel, as terrier-like investigator Steve Arnold, lock horns.

Set in the bombed out Berlin of 1945, Taking Sides ponders the question of what influential men do when backed into a corner. In Furtwangler’s case, he felt staying on to spread culture through music was preferable to fleeing and acknowledging the Nazis’ book-burning mentality.

Arnold does not concur, and makes it his mission to prove the German’s guilt. In Harwood’s hands it steadily becomes a blistering duel of wits between two great actors: Keitel the hectoring voice of conscience, Skarsgård the enigmatic victim/villain. It is by turns gripping, compelling and electrifying, even if director Istvan Szabo is occasionally a tad theatrical in his delivery of the action.

Harwood’s triumph is in charting the journey taken by each man. Arnold is initially presented as a good guy – a ‘hail-fellow, well met’ type who urges his underlings to ‘Call me Steve’. Furtwangler is aloof, detached and acutely aware of his social status – a Teutonic snob to be brought down by Arnold’s blue-collar bully.

Mind games result, with Arnold playing childish games of one-upmanship while peppering his speech with profanities. His quarry, on the other hand, remains ambiguous, maybe even duplicitous.

The spider and fly motif is never overplayed, and both Szabo and Harwood prefer to leave audiences to make up their minds on Furtwangler’s sympathies with a scratchy newsreel epilogue that offers up a suggestion of what may or may not have gone on in the composer’s mind during those dark days under the jackboot.

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