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    Taking Sides

    Tunes of inglory

    In "Taking Sides," based on his own stage play of the same name Oscar-winning scripter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") comes up with yet another, more didactic, fact-based, musician-themed, WW2 bio-pic, this one about "Hitler's bandleader."


    This film collaboration between Oscar winners Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist," 2002) and Oscar-winning director Istvan Szabo ("Sunshine," 1999), posits the theory that one person's musical genius orchestra conductor is merely Hitler's "bandleader" to someone else. Szabo returns again to the question of the responsibility of the artist and/or the ordinary citizen against the Barbarian hordes that has haunted several of his excellent films, including "Mephisto" (1981), "Hanussen" (1988) and "Sunshine" (1999). But "Taking Sides" is less satisfactory than the previous works of either man, hobbled as it is by a polemical script and some major miscasting.

    Directed by: Istv‡n Szab—.
    Written by: Ronald Harwood.
    Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Moritz Bleibtreu, Stellan SkarsgŒrd, Birgit Minichmayr, Ulrich Tukur, Oleg Tabakov, Birgitt Minichmayr, Hanns Zieschler, August Zirner, Armin Rohde.

    Related links: Official site
    Szabo's epic "Sunshine" highlighted several generations of a single Hungarian Jewish family's continual battle against anti-Semitism, the barbarians being first the Nazis and then the communists, each of whom invaded his Hungarian homeland at different times.

    But his passionate cinematic search for answers started with "Mephisto, another true story about a real German actor during the rise of Hitler, who achieved great success by performing for the Nazis. The actor's whine "I'm an artist, not a politician" echoes throughout both "Taking Sides" and Szabo's earlier "Hanussen," about another popular German entertainer who was championed by the FŸhrer.

    Although the director named the film after the illusionist and self-proclaimed seer who became an unwilling favorite of Hitler, his real target was the secondary character Hanni Stahl, modeled after Hitler's favorite film director, Leni Riefenstahl ("Triumph of the Will").

    Taking Sides  
    "Taking Sides" is far more didactic (and therefore less successful) than any of its antecedents, perhaps because this time the idea didn't originate with Szabo. To retell this true story of Hitler's favorite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Harwood adapted his already polemical stage play. The difficult role of the tall, gangly Furtwangler was given a bravura performance by Daniel Massey both in the West-End and on Broadway.

    On stage in two acts, Massey deconstructed the character from famed conductor to broken collaborator. The film's Furtwangler is portrayed by the usually admirable Stellan Skarsgard, but he's already a haunted, broken man almost from the first moment we see him in flashback, directing Beethoven in Berlin during an air raid. This leaves Skarsgard with no real dramatic journey to make.

    In both the play and the film, World War II is over and the allies (including the Brits, the Russkies and the Yanks) are in Berlin prosecuting former Nazis. Most cases are fairly open and shut until the American in charge, Major Arnold (Harvey Keitel) — a straight-shooting midwesterner who continually admonishes his young lieutenant to "call me Steve" — is given the conductor's file along with instructions to "get" him.

    An insurance claims adjuster in civilian life, who contends that classical music isn't his thing, Keitel's Arnold is the film's other casting mishap. He's intractable and bombastic in a role that Ed Harris brilliantly underplayed on Broadway. But Keitel, too smug by half, wheedles where he should charm and merely blusters the rest of the time.

    Although Harwood claims he wants his audience to be forced to 'take sides' on the issues of guilt and responsibility, he stacks the deck with his didactic dialogue and Szabo abets with misguided direction of his two protagonists. (See Keitel's tightly controlled portrayal of a Nazi officer in last season's "The Grey Zone," and almost any Skarsgard performance, to see how well each works with the right director.)

    An ironic subplot has Arnold's German-born Jewish-American lieutenant (Moritz Bleibtreu, "Run Lola Run") taking the conductor's side over the major's, and a bit more of this kind of moral ambiguity might have moved the film away from polemic or at least towards the realm of better drama. Elie Wiesel admonished writers not to "trivialize the Holocaust." The big screen version of "Taking Sides" comes perilously close.

    SEPTEMBER 7, 2003

    Reader comments on Taking Sides:

  • Taking Sides opens in London, 21 November 2003   from John Bowling, Nov 13, 2003
  • subplot   from lizzie, Nov 2, 2005

  • Post a comment on "Taking Sides"