Taking Sides (2001)




Director:  Istvn Szab.

Starring:  Harvey Keitel (Major Steve Arnold), Stellan SkarsgDrd (Dr. Wilhelm Furtwngler), Moritz Bleibtreu (Lt. David Wills), Birgit Minichmayr (Emmi Straube), Ulrich Tukur (Helmut Alfred Rode, 2nd violinist), Oleg Tabakov (Colonel Dymshitz), Hanns Zischler (Rudolf Otto Werner, oboist), Armin Rohde (Schlee, timpanist), R. Lee Ermey (General Wallace), August Zirnerm (Captain Ed Martin), Daniel White (Sergeant Adams), Thomas Thieme (Reichsminister), Jed Curtis (Colonel Green), Garrick Hagon (Major Richards), Robin Renucci (Captain Vernay).

Berlin orchestra director thinks politics and art won't mix under Hitler


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Orchestra conductor Dr. Wilhelm Furtwngler leads his orchestra while Allied airplanes bomb the city.  Nazi Albert Speer checks on Furtwngler and suggests to him that he get some rest; take a vacation. 

After the war, American Major Steve Arnold is given the assignment of connecting Furtwngler to the Nazi Party.  He is to gather the evidence in order to find Furtwngler guilty.  Furtwngler "represents everything that was rotten in Germany."  Arnold is then shown documentary films from some of the concentration camps.  Especially gruesome was the use of a bulldozer to bury the emaciated corpses in mass graves. 

Major Arnold hires Emmi Straube to be his secretary.  Her father was executed by the Nazis for having been in on the plot to kill Hitler.  Jewish-American but born in Germany, Lt. David Wills is assigned to Major Arnold.  Arnold begins to conduct interviews of all the members of the Furtwngler orchestra.  Almost every interview sounds pretty much the same.  I was not a member of the Nazi Party.  Miss Straube your father is an inspiration for all good Germans.  Furtwngler was opposed to the Nazis and refused to give the Nazi salute.  At the Nuremburg Rally the orchestra played, but on the day before the big spectacle, not on the day itself.  Furtwngler believed that politics and art must be kept separate.  Arnold asks his team if they think 120 stories could be orchestrated.  The thinking is that it is possible.

Major Arnold's Russian counterpart wants the famous German conductor to conduct, not be sent to prison.  He is totally opposed to Arnold's approach. 

Major Arnold learns about the Hinkle files.  Hinkle kept files on virtually everyone who worked in the arts.  The total came to around 250,000 files.  Arnold is ecstatic about the prospect of finding incriminating information concerning Furtwngler in the files. 

Arnold sends for Furtwngler.  Germans on the metro recognize Furtwngler.  The conductor is banned from public life.  Arnold deliberately keeps Furtwngler waiting to humiliate and belittle him.  He makes the conductor sit in the lesser of two chairs in front of his desk.  He goes over the highlights of his life.  Furtwngler was born in 1886.  He was Prussian privy councilor, appointed by Goering.  He resigned the position in 1934 because of his objection to the distinction in music between Jews and non-Jews.  On April 19, 1942 Furtwngler played for Hitler.  The orchestra leader objects to this statements, saying:  "I was tricked."  At the time he was in Vienna and was called in for the birthday.  "I knew I compromised."  But he insists he made no deal.  Also in the files is mention that Furtwngler helped many Jews escape to safety.  Furtwngler tells Arnold:  "I need work.  I need to earn a living."  Yes, he escaped to Switzerland, but it was because the Gestapo was going to arrest him. 

Arnold wants to know why didn't the conductor leave Germany in 1933 along with so many artists.  Furtwngler says that they were Jews who left because they had to leave.   There is a picture available showing Furtwngler with Goebbels. 

Arnold calls in Helmut Alfred Rode, 2nd violinist again.  The man has a questionable past and Arnold wants to put pressure on him to finger Furtwngler.  Helmut collapses under Arnold's sarcastic questioning.  He was a communist in Vienna.  The Nazis discovered this and used the information to black-mail him.  To avoid being turned in, Helmut cooperated with the Nazis.  And now he cooperates with Arnold, who tells the major that Furtwngler was an anti-Semite.  Arnold responds: "Like everyone else in this God-damned country."  Furtwngler sent a telegram to Hitler for his birthday.  It is obvious that Helmut hated Furtwngler because he did not have to join the Nazi Party and yet was still heaped with honors and a high standard of living.  Furthermore, Furtwngler had a critic of his music enrolled in the German army and sent to the front to be killed.  Helmut then gives Arnold a black book with information on all the girls with whom Furtwngler had sex.  Arnold is delighted with all the new ammunition against Furtwngler. 

Arnold's Russian counterpart virtually begs Arnold to lighten up on Furtwngler:  "We want Furtwngler.  I need him Steve.  Let Furtwngler go, please."  Arnold will hear nothing of it.  He says:  "I'm going to get that f...ing band leader."

Arnold watches an American film about the Nazis.  There are two million ex-Nazi officials in Germany, all thinking about the next time.  The films warns the American soldiers not to make friends with them:  be aloof, watchful, suspicious. 

Lt. Wills and Emmi seem to like each other.  They go for a two-seater bike ride.  Wills tells her that Furtwngler could have gone to the New York Philharmonic in 1936, suggested by Toscanini.  Emmi loses it.  She starts berating the moralistic approach of the Americans to the Germans.  Would the Americans have acted any differently if they were living in a totalitarian state like that of Nazi Germany?  How many would be willing to give their lives to oppose Hitler and his policies?  The approach of the Americans is too overly-judgmental of good people being caught in a terrible situation.  Wills does not say anything in response to her tirade. 

Arnold sends for Furtwngler again.  On his way up, Furtwngler sees Helmut working for Arnold as a cleaning man.  (Arnold had told Helmut that he could help him if he cooperated and the informer's reward is to be a cleaning man.)  Furtwngler is shocked to see Helmut there, but Arnold will not give him any explanation for why the former orchestra member is there. 

Arnold decides to let everything go in this interview.    He is nasty, sarcastic, accusatory.  He hopes to break Furtwngler down, to get him to confess.  He asks the conductor about the telegram he sent to Hitler for his birthday.  Furtwngler is shocked.  He tells the major that he never sent him any telegram.  Arnold tries to bluff Furtwngler saying that he has the actual telegram.  Wills counters Arnold on this, which deeply upsets Arnold who feels Wills is sabotaging him.  Arnold says:  "I know it exists." 

Arnold says that Furtwngler played music in the occupied countries.  The conductor says the orchestra was not an official part of the Nazi Party.  It was a private orchestra and he a free-lance conductor.  Arnold rejects this explanation.  He asks if the people in the occupied countries would be able to not see the orchestra as a representative of Nazi Germany.  Furtwngler tells Arnold that music means more than politics. 

Arnold says that Furtwngler sent a critic of his to the front.  The conductor replies:  "It's an outrageous lie."  He doesn't know what happened to the critic.  Arnold informs him that the man died at Stalingrad. 

Arnold then starts ascribing motivation to Furtwngler.  He says that Furtwngler felt threatened by the second best conductor in Germany.  Goebbels had threatened Furtwngler with bringing in the younger competitor, if Furtwngler would not cooperate.  Finally, Lt. Wills objects to the question, which just makes Arnold madder.

How many illegitimate children does he have, Arnold asks of the conductor.  Furtwngler admits he has illegitimate children, but does not know how many.  Finally, Arnold gets so mad that he tells "Wilhelm" to get out; to go home.  The conductor leaves.

Wills says he objects to the way the major conducted the interview.  He says:  "Major, your manner."  Major Arnold doesn't care what Wills has to say.  Wills leaves.  Emmi tells the major:  "I can't do this.  It's not right."  She says she was questioned by the Gestapo and it was jus like how the major questioned Furtwngler.  Arnold responds by showing her Holocaust scenes.  He then wants to know from Emmi:  "Why did Jews need protection?' if the Germans had no idea of what was going on.  Emmi just says:  "I would like to go now please." 

Later Wills talks to the major.  He tells him that Furtwngler may have been the best conductor in the world:  "Could you treat him with respect?"  Arnold responds by questioning Wills' identity as a Jew.  He responds:  "But first I'm a human being,"  Arnold then asks him:  "For Christ's sake, whose side are you on?" 

Lt. Wills asks Emmi to come back to the office.  She agrees to return.  Arnold starts his next round of interrogation of Furtwngler.  He lists his anti-Semitic remarks.  Furtwngler says that he used the language of the party.  Wills comes to Furtwngler's defense by introducing a great many letters from Jewish people helped by Furtwngler.  Emmi takes one letter at random and reads it.  It says that Furtwngler risked his to to help anyone who asked him. 

Again Arnold rejects any mercy for the conductor.  He says that helping the Jews and others was just part of his cover.  The Nazi radio stations played his music after his pal Hitler shot himself.  They picked his music because he so represented them.  He was everything to them.  Furtwngler says:  "I walked a tight rope. . . . You seem to be blaming me for not being hanged."   Arnold responds by going into a rant about all the terrible things he saw at the concentration camps.  He finally admits:  "Yes, I blame you. You f...ing piece of sh..."

Arnold admits it would have been better if he had left Germany.  He starts to leave, but falls down.  Wills and Emmi help him up and he leaves.  Wills and Emmi are upset about the interrogation.  Wills leaves to say some soothing words to the conductor.   Emmi starts blasting Beethoven's fifth symphony music.  The major demands that she turn it off, but she refuses. 

The major summarizes what happened to Furtwngler.  He was charged with many crimes involving collaboration with the Nazis.  But he was acquitted.  He died in 1954.  Arnold adds "I know I did the right thing. . . .I didn't nail him, but I sure winged him." 


Good movie.   It is really more about the United States than Nazi Germany.  The United States has always been a conservative country and when it became very industrialized it would often flirt with fascism or some right-wing extremism, as it does at this very moment of writing this.  The country is very puritanical and still to this day extremely moralistic, going from criticism to being so stern that they become cruel in their assessment of others not like them.  Moralism goes hand in hand with racism.  The American south is still the stronghold of racism and moralism in America and the main support of the right-wing Republican Party. 

The play criticizes the cruel moralism of the American assessment of Germans who were not members of the Nazi Party, that is the tendency to tar all Germans with the broad brush of moralism.   If a person does not assess individual people from the perspective of psychiatry, but instead goes on the attack on all in a group of people, that person is a moralist.  A psychiatrist would treat a client with some dignity and an open mind.  The idea is to help the person rather than just curse them out-of-hand as being mean, miserable people. 

As in all too many American police departments, the approach of the Americans was to grab a person who is thought to be guilty and then to spend all their time and resources on building a case against the accused.  This is what Arnold did.  And he was so moralistic in his approach that he acted like a fascist, a Nazi, except that Arnold was not allow to torture the accused.  Arnold tried to do everything he could to break the musical conductor.  And he continued even when his staff protested against the way he behaved.  His secretary even quit over the issue. 

Wills often behaved in a very human way.  He was very upset about the tactics used by his superior, but he never reported the major.  And one could argue that Wills acted like most non-Nazis in Germany. 

The intent of the movie is not to excuse German fascism, but to warn against a moralistic approach that that has so much in common with fascism.  The criticism in the film is of American proto-fascism and its too severe and cruel way of looking at people who are seen as deviant or just even different.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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