German artists fled the Third Reich in droves, while many of those who stayed counted themselves “internal exiles.” Was musician Wilhelm Furtwängler among them? He was Hitler’s favorite conductor; Goebbels and Goering heaped honors upon him; yet he never joined the Nazi party, and he helped numerous Jews escape. Taking Sides, veteran Hungarian director István Szabó’s flawed but fascinating film, set in post-war Berlin, stars a brash and thunderous Harvey Keitel as the American major charged with investigating Furtwängler’s Nazi ties. Stellan Skarsgård is brilliant as the brooding Teutonic genius, tragically puzzled by his loss of authority.
Based in fact, Ronald Harwood’s screenplay suffers from wordiness and a sense of claustrophobia (due perhaps to its theatrical origins). Yet the issues it raises are still pressing. Can art remain free under a murderous regime, or are its most public practitioners obligated to leave? Does culture represent a timeless value, imperious over politics? Using a rich score to highlight moments of psychological intensity Szabó mostly just enjoys the clash of two titanic personalities; his hand is tipped against American righteousness, but he has the courage (and sense) to leave the film’s compelling questions unresolved.