Whose Side Are you On? | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.03.2002
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Whose Side Are you On?

The controversial Wilhelm Furtwängler, the role of art and artists under Hitler and the relationship of art and politics - István Szabó takes the bull by the horns in his latest film, "Taking Sides".


Stellan Skarsgard plays the brilliant, conflicted Wilhelm Furtwaengler

None would deny that Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the greatest German conductors of the 20th century.

Director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera, Furtängler had superb control of his orchestra and sweeping rhythms and was globally recognised as a virtuoso.

He was the best musician there was at the time. And also the most controversial.

Having stayed on in Germany unlike most of his contemporaries after the National Socialists came to power in 1933, he often played for Hitler and his entourage during the dark years of the Nazi era.

But Furtwängler was something of an enigma - he never became a member of the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), and even intervened successfully in a number of cases on behalf of artists, including Jews, who were out of favour with the regime.

The burning question still remains whether Furtwängler was used by the Nazis as a showpiece for their own propaganda purposes or whether he played along and let himself be used to his own end.

Guilty or not guilty?

After the Second World War, Furtwängler faced an Allied "denazification" tribunal which attempted to establish his exact role as an acclaimed musician in the Third Reich.

That's the plot of Hungarian director István Szabó intense political drama, "Taking Sides" or the "Der Fall Furtwängler" based on a 1996 Broadway play by British author Ronald Harwood.

The film revolves around the unequal verbal duel between two men - the scintillating artist, aesthete and man of high culture Furtwängler played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard and the straightforward and blunt American Major Steve Arnold played by Harvey Keitel.

The Major, who merely refers to the famed conductor as "bandleader" is out to nail Furtwängler and prove his guilt and covert "collaboration" with the Nazi regime.

Complex nuances

The inarticulate major doesn't just come from the nation of the victorious, he also belongs to a society where Mickey Mouse is more important than Beethoven. But after all it isn't the people from the land of Walt Disney and Hollywood, but those from the country of "poets and thinkers" that shocked the world with Auschwitz.

The simplistic American major is outraged by the horrific scale of the crime, the much more complicated and sensitive conductor still hasn't grasped this dimension of it.

The brilliant dialogues are based to a large extent on actual statements made by Furtwängler.

The film quivers with tension as Furtwängler sticks to his view that art and politics have nothing to do with each other while the American major relentlessly argues and cajoles and pushes Furtwängler into a corner.

Actor Skarsgard shows subtly how the great artist gradually begins to develop guilt feelings despite his professed distance to the Nazis.

Szabó hailed as genius

Director Szabó has been widely hailed for his masterly interrogation scenes.

Critics have called it a "masterstroke" and denoted Szabó as "a specialist in the discriminating presentation of two-faced characters who are mired in political happenings", referring to his "Mephisto" for which he won the Oscar in 1981.

István Szabó has made the film from a personal perspective. "I live in Hungary, just as my parents and grandparents did. Our life was always determined and destroyed by politics and politicians. The questions that author Ronald Harwood asks are also my questions: How does one live under the pressure of authoritarian regimes? How does one survive? Those are general questions that all people should ask, it's not much different today than it was 50 years ago", he was reported as saying.

The intensity of Szabò's film is strengthened by mention of the actual historical continuation of events after the interrogation: Furtwängler could never again work in the United States, though he was considered rehabilitated in Europe and took over the direction of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Salzburg festival.

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