Taking the side of ordinary postwar Germans | AspenTimes.com

Taking the side of ordinary postwar Germans

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The current state of war and terrorism, and especially the rhetoric of President George Bush, has given the world a certain black-and-white cast. It’s noticeable on blather TV and in the unmeasured tone of the letters to the editor of this newspaper: You’re either with or against something (war on Iraq, tax cuts, public swimming pools), and there ain’t no room for Mr. In-Between.

Major Steve Arnold lived well before these times. An officer with the American Denazification Committee, Arnold was charged with the task of carrying out pre-trial investigations of Nazis party members and suspected Nazi collaborators. The subsequent hearings would determine whether those Germans on trial could carry on their lives without the taint of having been associated with the Third Reich.

In “Taking Sides,” Hungarian-born director Istvan Szabo’s account of one such case, Major Arnold, played by Harvey Keitel, is a black-and-white type. An accountant in his civilian life, Arnold takes on his military assignment as a mission. Entering his investigation chambers like a bull into a ring, Arnold isn’t intent on an investigation. He’s looking for a hanging.

Despite Arnold’s strutting assurances, however, his assigned case doesn’t make for easy prey. Arnold’s investigation, which plays out like a cat-and-mouse legal thriller, involves Wilhelm Furtwängler, the real-life, widely admired conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. Furtwängler was never a member of the Nazi party, was generally respected by most of his music associates, and was regarded as an artist to the core, which made him utterly apolitical. He had, of course, nothing to do with the slaughter of Jews or other groups deemed undesirable by Hitler. Indeed, Furtwängler had a reputation for helping Jews when he could, even lending occasional assistance in helping them flee Germany.

But Furtwängler is not completely free of Nazi association. He held official artistic posts in the Third Reich, appointments he insists were bestowed on him without participation. On one infamous occasion, he conducted at Hitler’s birthday. During the investigation, he is caught in lies and contradictions here and there. Neither is Furtwängler perfect in his character; he has the ego that comes with a pre-eminent conductor.

Keitel’s Major Arnold has no ear for nuance, and doesn’t care to. At every turn, he also makes clear he has no need for classical music. He attacks Furtwängler, eventually earning comparisons from his secretary Emmi (Birgit Minichmayr) to the notorious Nazi interrogators themselves. Keitel is relentless, brushing aside even the arguments of his associate David, a Jew, and Emmi, a concentration camp survivor whose musician father was executed as a plotter against Hitler, that Furtwängler is no Nazi.

Keitel’s portrayal is over-the-top, almost to the point of humorous. It provides entertainment in the chamber drama setting of “Taking Sides,” which was originally a play by Ron Harwood. (Harwood wrote the “Taking Sides” screenplay, as well as for “The Pianist.”) But ultimately, Arnold’s one-tone stance is a distraction and a frustration. He can’t see what is plainly in front of him.

Keitel’s performance, though, doesn’t erase the carefully framed issues here. The special place of the arts and artists is deeply probed. And “Taking Sides” takes a close look at the ordinary Germans whose lives happened to coincide with the Third Reich: Did their failure to speak up allow or encourage Nazism? Or did they act as most of us would have, taking care of our lives and jobs and families?

In Szabo’s telling, Furtwängler is cut considerable slack. The lack of individual heroism is excusable. The film ends with actual footage from the 1940s which seems to exonerate the conductor. But while Szabo makes his case, and Major Arnold makes his, and Furtwängler his, “Taking Sides” is a subtle and intelligent enough film to allow us to chime in with our own conclusions.

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