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Taking Sides

Starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgard
Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
Directed by István Szabó
no website

IN SHORT: The fireworks of a stage play become high powered bombs on the big screen. [Not Rated. 105 minutes]

Deutsche Gramophone recording artist, famed German freelance orchestral conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgard) had the opportunity to get out of town, so to speak, when the New York Philharmonic offered him the conductor's baton in 1936. American opposition to the offer was strong, as Furtwängler's association with Nazi party officers and events (though he was not a member) was enough to raise a stink. He consulted famed Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg as to what he should do and was told to "stay and conduct good music." In simpler terms, protect the culture from the thugs that were decimating the political scene. Would that this bit of information were included in the screenplay of Taking Sides, and not just in the press notes.Were it there, this mano-a-mano debate about the meaning of collaboration might have had some more meat on its bones. As such, it is spoiled by an uncontrolled scenery chomping performance by Harvey Keitel. We'll come back to this in a bit.

Define "collaborator." Take your time, we'll wait. Or let us do it for you: Suppose that, back in the days of WWII, Georg Solti led the Chicago Philharmonic in a birthday concert for the president. After the United States lost the war, Solti was put on trial for being a collaborator and, fame and politics being intertwined in this instance, was found guilty because an example had to be made. Now you, scriptwriter, prove it.

The reality in the case of Taking Sides is that conductor Furtwängler, rather than flee his native Germany when he had the chance, stayed behind. After the war, as the "de-Nazification" process was put in place by the victorious Allies, the question of Furtwängler's "collaboration" became more than a moot point. As fictionally constructed by Oscar winning screenwriter (for The Pianist) Ronald Harwood, first for the stage and now the big screen, the intent is to put all the evidence in front of the audience in as neutral a way as possible and so force you to "take sides".

Of course, that isn't of any concern to the Allied commander General Wallace (R. Lee Ermey) who instructs prosecutor Major Steven Arnold (Harvey Keitel) to give Furtwängler "a just trial. Find him Guilty."

The Nazis were kind to Furtwängler because his rep, as Wallace describes it to Arnold, was akin to Hope and Grable (nowadays think Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts) combined. As a true German, his fame could be used to show the superiority of the aryan breed. Among the honors the regime bestowed upon him was the invitation to conduct at a birthday celebration for herr Fuehrer, one Adolf Hitler. It is this appearance that is at the core of the Allied accusation that the conductor was a collaborator. Furtwängler holds to the "I am a German but not a Nazi. What would you have me do?" defense while gently offering that he did his best to protect the Jewish members of his orchestra from Bergen-Belsen and similar concentration camps.

Ah, what a grand intellectual premise for a debate about what (you) knew and what (you) did about it. Too bad director István Szabó allows Keitel to chomp the scenery. Keitel creates an ugly American who is as energetic an ass as he is arrogant. Skarsgard is held back from displaying almost any kind of emotion at all. Too bad that Szabó under emphasizes the background stories of subordinates Lt. David Willis (Moritz Bleibreau), whose parents were killed in the camps, and transcriber Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr) whose father was part of the plan to assassinate Hitler and was executed because of it. Taking Sides has not left its origin as a confrontational stage play behind. Keitel's viciously boisterous performance would project beautifully from a stage. The camera, as cameras will do, amplifies and emphasizes Keitel's anything but subtle performance and, in conjunction with Skarsgard's passive role, throws the story completely out of balance.

In intent, it may have wished to present a fair and balanced battle of action and perceptions. In execution, it is anything but, wearing its sympathies on its sleeve and forcing its villain to behave as such a clown that any intellectual battle fails to materialize.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Taking Sides, he would have paid . . .

$3.00

Rent.

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