Taking Sides (Der Fall Furtwängler, France/UK/Germany/Austria 2001)

Stellan Skarsgård as Wilhelm Furtwängler

I didn’t notice this on its UK release in 2003, but after working on Colonel Redl, I was intrigued to see an István Szabó film scheduled for a TV broadcast on BBC2. Yet another film dealing with the post war world of Berlin, Taking Sides raises several interesting questions about classification. The film was co-produced by Jeremy Thomas, the UK producer responsible for many big budget ‘international’ pictures with several others. There were various European companies involved in the production, which was filmed largely in Berlin, directed and photographed by Hungarians, cast with mainly German players and based on a play by the British writer Ronald Harwood. This ought to make it clearly a ‘European film’. Yet it is performed in English and the central performance by Harvey Keitel means that it takes on a different ‘feel’.

The story is based on real life events featuring the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (played in the film by Stellan Skarsgård) who was accused of supporting the Nazi regime. Keitel plays an American major investigating the case. A certain tension is apparent in the film which seems to be generated by Szabó’s direction working against the the conventional presentation of the stage play. Szabó doesn’t do that much to open up the play, rarely moving beyond two or three main sets. Yet the camerawork does attempt to create effects both through an overall yellow-gold colour palette and a style which involves holding long shots well into sequences where the convention calls for at least MCUs in shot-reverse shot mode. Szabó may also have been more interested in the supporting characters than the script would allow. For me the failure to follow this through was the cause of my disappointment in the film. I was more interested in the relationship between the two young supports Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr and in the struggles of the other band members. The film was too much like a ‘well-made play’ with a focus on the two main characters. I can see that this was the basis for a classic discussion about art and politics, but I’d rather know what was going through the mind of the young woman whose father was a patriot who attempted to kill Hitler – and how she handled a relationship with a young man who had escaped Germany and had returned with the Americans. I’m probably asking for the Fassbinder version of the story. Still, not a Europudding, but possibly overegged by Keitel’s performance (in his favour, one commentator suggests that his boorishness is forgivable because he asks the right ‘tough questions’).

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