István Szabó: Taking Sides (2001)

reviewed by Ivan Sanders© 2008

Tainted Art: On István Szabó's Taking Sides (2001)

István Szabó likes to film scenes that depict performances—theater performances, musical performances, opera. Indeed, in many of his films, the main characters are performers—an actor in Mephisto (1981), a diva in Meeting Venus (1991), a conductor in Taking Sides. Even in Sunshine (1999), the story of three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, one of the central characters is a world-class fencer, who, too, is a performer of sorts. There are several fencing matches in Sunshine, and they are among the most affecting and visually brilliant sequences in the film. In such scenes the camera invariably lingers on the spectators, intent on catching their expressions and conveying the story behind the story. Of course, this is a familiar device, used routinely by directors. Szabó's shots of audiences at spectacles are especially important and dramatic, and in this he is following a Central European cinematic tradition.

Among the earliest Austrian, German, and Hungarian sound pictures there were film versions of plays by such Central European men of the theater as Arthur Schnitzler and Ferenc Molnár, who in their works often blurred the line between illusion and reality, between stage life and real life. For example, Max Oph ül s's classic film treatment of Schnitzler's play Flirtation (Liebelei, 1933) begins with a performance of a Mozart opera. However, we see very little of what transpires on stage. The camera is turned instead on the auditorium during intermission and takes in the faces of elegant Viennese opera goers: casually chatting grandes dames , dashing officers, etc., until the lights dim again, the door to the royal box is opened, the Emperor enters, there is applause—and just then a pair of opera glasses falls from the balcony. General consternation; an adjutant in the royal box makes a notation in a little book. All this takes place in a very short time, but we get the feeling that the real drama here is going to be on this side of the proscenium arch.

The opening scene in Taking Sides begins with the image of a conductor leading his orchestra, seen at first as if through opaque glass or gauze. Only after the opening credits is a concert seen in sharp focus. The camera pans across the inside of a beautiful church; we see row after row of solemn, reverential, distinguished-looking listeners, the sequence probably inspired by the actual documentary footage shown at the end of the film, where we see faces from the audience of a wartime Furtwängler concert. In Szabó 's film the faces are even more solemn and reverential and refined—yet these people are also enraptured, transfigured by the performance. And then the sublime musical experience is interrupted by the drone of airplanes; searchlights can be seen through the windows. The members of the orchestra are more than startled; it's as if they were stirred out of a trance, their intense concentration broken. The entire church is plunged into darkness. And here we get the first of Szabó's many ironic insinuations. We know that these are Allied planes bombing Berlin, the seat of Nazi power, but for a few moments we, too, feel what the audience must: that the ugly outside world has once again intruded and shattered a moment of transcended beauty.

Some critics of Taking Sides have complained that in a film about a legendary conductor, there is not enough music. For instance, Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review writes: “When a director uses the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth three times in one picture, you know he has decided to play it safe” (101). But István Szabó, as a filmmaker, is more interested in the effect music has, or doesn't have, on people than in music per se. Thus, in a rain-soaked postwar concert scene later in the film, we hardly see the musicians; we hear the music, but the focus is again on the faces of listeners in a bombed-out, roofless hall. We see ordinary soldiers, a Soviet colonel, Lieutenant David Wills (a German American Jewish young man), Emmi Straube (daughter of an executed German officer, now a hero), and Wilhelm Furtwängler himself sitting in the rain, engrossed, forlorn, oblivious.

The two supporting characters—David and Emmi—are more than “qualifying clauses to the central argument,” as Stephen Holden in his New York Times review would have it (12). They are important because the admiration, the awe in which they, as Germans, hold Furtwängler reflect the kind of hero worship that the other main character in the drama, Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), Furtwängler's interrogator and a furious Nazi hunter, reacts to and reacts violently. The American major is easy to dislike; he is a bully and a philistine. His methods as an interrogator are crude and underhanded, chillingly reminiscent of Nazi and Communist tactics. And he is ignorant: he misses a great opportunity to expose Furtwängler, to “nail him,” as he would say. When he asks the conductor why he didn't emigrate in 1934, like his colleagues in German music and theater (Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Arnold Schönberg, Max Reinhardt, etc.), Furtwängler answers quite sincerely: “But they are all Jews—they had to leave, they were right to leave. I am German; this is my home.” What Major Arnold fails to ask at this point is: Were these artists not German as well? Or primarily German? By not asking this question he cannot demonstrate that when the chips are down Furtwängler does stand on racial ground. In his films Szabó is at pains to show just how German assimilated German Jews (and how Hungarian assimilated Hungarian Jews) were. In a little scene between David and Emmi in Taking Sides, the two realize that though they came from different backgrounds, they both had the same proper German upbringing—they heard the same admonitions, the same catch phrases while growing up.

In a way, Szabó and Ronald Harwood, on whose play the film is based, stack the cards against the American major. They do not help us understand him; he is not given a motivation for his behavior. In trying to size him up, we don't have much to go on. Even in some of the minor characters we get more. We learn, for instance, that the second violinist in Furtwängler's orchestra turns informer because he had been a communist and this was held over his head. The Soviet colonel in the film understands Furtwängler's quandary because he was an art critic or historian in civilian life, and we surmise that for doing what he was told, he was appointed director of the largest art museum in Soviet Russia. But when it comes to Major Arnold, we know nothing about his past except the fact that he was an insurance salesman before the war. He is what he is, a brash American from a culture where it's no shame to be a lowbrow. In talking about Furtwängler's celebrity, his superior officer says that in “this neck of the woods” Furtwängler is “Bob Hope and Betty Grable rolled into one.”

I first saw Taking Sides in Budapest, and after the screening a Hungarian friend in the audience told me: “Szabó really let you, Americans, have it in this one.” I thought then and still think that Szabó wants us to overcome our antipathy for the major. He is an unabashed lowbrow, he loves to scandalize “sensitive” souls, he is there to debunk myths, punch holes in pretensions—and he is deliberately provocative about all this. He is not as ignorant and insensitive as he makes it appear: he knows Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies. And he was told by his superiors to do his duty and make an example out of the celebrated conductor. It is always annoying, of course, to see a person whom we find thoroughly unpleasant and disagreeable get things right. The major's theory that Furtwängler's real motivation for his actions was jealousy of his young rival, Herbert von Karajan, is not completely implausible. When an orchestra member recalls the magic of Furtwängler's irresistible look demanding a crescendo from him, and the major responds by saying he saw the same look in Hitler's eyes in the newsreels, we know what he means. The major is not the first to suggest that Germans worshipping at the altar of high art and their unconditional submission to the will of an irrational dictator may spring from the same source. Naturally, someone like Thomas Mann discourses on this phenomenon with infinitely greater subtlety and eloquence; but they are talking about the same thing. The major whittles away Furtwängler's illusions until he is crushed and concedes that he should have left his country in 1934. The main argument in this, as well as in a number of other Szabó films, is over art and politics; whether the two can be kept apart. For Szabó the answer is a foregone conclusion: they cannot. He has the Soviet colonel, Dymshits, ask Major Arnold: How does a conductor get a symphony orchestra? He depends on the help of those in power, naturally. The question Szabó raises in many of his film is whether an artist, an intellectual in a dictatorship can make the kind of compromise with the powers that be that lets him retain a measure of freedom and integrity. In Mephisto, the deal made by the actor, Hendrik Höfgen, is a devil's pact, and therefore disastrous. Furtwängler's compromise is more ambiguous, yet in the end it, too, becomes disastrous. Furtwängler is not portrayed as a calculating opportunist. On the contrary, he remains distant and aloof, curiously lebensfremd . Of those interrogated by Arnold, he is the only one who does not comment when he hears the name Straube. And he does not seem to recognize the second violinist of his orchestra when he sees him sweeping the floor outside the major's office. Yet he allowed himself to be used, to become “everything” to the Nazi leaders, as Major Arnold tells him. In the final analysis, though, what the major represents is also a dead end. The spirituality Furtwängler offered in his interpretations may have been tainted; but what the major has to offer is a soulless material culture of utility and convenience.

Taking Sides is not only about the relationship between art and politics. The film probes deeper and touches on a larger issue: the crisis of liberalism. In a minor key, the theme runs through the entire film. At one point David Wills finds himself in a ruined synagogue. He looks at the ark, the tablet of laws above it, the Hebrew lettering, and he is touched. He picks up a pebble and gently places it on a plank of wood in remembrance of the dead, as though it were a gravestone. And indeed, he may feel at this point that Judaism in Germany, in Europe, the kind of liberal, modern Judaism he is presumably familiar with, is finished, dead. In another scene, Major Arnold lights into David after seeing that the young man still admires the artist in Furtwängler, in spite of everything. “Where is your anger, your outrage?” he demands to know. “You are Jewish, aren't you?” “Yes, I am,” David answers. “But I am also a human being.” This is a classical expression of the enlightened, liberal position. It harks back to Montesquieu's famous dictum: “First I am a human being and then a Frenchman.” And even to Nora Helmer, who at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House , in shocking defiance to convention, tells her husband that she is not just a wife and a mother, but “first of all a human being.” The 20th century confounded these enlightened, liberal, humanist credos, and forced millions to reassess their stand on the entire Enlightenment project, the entire assimilation project. Szabó's films confront us with this change.

There is always something neatly balanced, and a little didactic, in Szabó's films. In Taking Sides , when David Wills first walks into the major's new office, he stumbles, and the major reaches out to help. At the end, when Furtwängler leaves the room, he also stumbles, but all the major can say is: “Get him out of here.” The American general who instructs the major is a vulgarian, but he is counterbalanced by a more refined officer who tells David Wills that if he wants to help Furtwängler he must collect hard evidence in his defense and not rely on emotional arguments. Yet, Taking Sides is much more than a primer in art and ideology, more than “Furtwangler 101” (Eichler 9). The film is more probing, more compelling than Szabó's recent films, including Sunshine. In fact I would place it next to his memorable early films—Age of Illusions (Álmodozások kora, 1964) and Father (Apa, 1966)—that is, among his best work.


Work Cited

Eichler, Jeremy. “The Man Who Kept the Music Playing (for Hitler).” The New York Times (31 August 2003) Arts and Leisure: 7, 9.

Holden, Stephen. “He Conducted the Orchestra for Hitler, and Now He's Making a Nazi Hunter's Day.” The New York Times (5 September 2003): 12.

Lane, Anthony. “Background Music: István Szabó's Taking Sides.” The New Yorker (8 September 2003): 100-101.

Ivan Sanders, Columbia University


Taking Sides, France, UK, Germany, and Austria, 2001
Color, 108 minutes
Director: István Szabó
Scriptwriter: Ronald Harwood
Cinematography: Lajos Koltai
Art Director: Anja Müller
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birgit Minichmayr, Ulrich Tukur, Oleg Tabakov, Hanns Zischler
Producer: Yves Pasquier
Production: Canal+, Enterprise Films, France 2 Cinéma, Great British Films, Jeremy Isaacs Productions Ltd., Little Big Bear Filmproduktion GmbH, MBP, Maecenas Film- und Fernseh GmbH, Paladin Production S.A., Satel Film, Spice Factory, Studio Babelsberg, TwanPiz Ltd.

All stills courtesy of New Yorker Films

István Szabó: Taking Sides (2001)

reviewed by Ivan Sanders© 2008

Updated: 26 Jan 08