10 August 2008 | dromasca
shaking hands with the Devil
One of the characters who understands best the great conductor Furtwängler who is the principal hero of 'Taking Sides' is the Soviet colonel Dymshitz. Dymshitz is a curator at the Hermitage museum in his civil life, and besides being a man of culture he also understands too well the compromises an artist must make in order to continue to survive as an artist and as a human being under a dictatorship.
This is actually one of the central themes of the work of director Istvan Szabo. In 'Mephisto' and 'Hanusses' he was also dealing with the Nazi era, but by telling WWII stories the Hungarian director does nevertheless talk also about all dictatorships, or specifically the Communist rule he knew directly.
The action of the film happens after the war, when Wilhelm Furtwängler, one of the greatest directors of the century stands on trial in a denazification tribunal for his cooperation with the Nazi regime. Despite many of the great musicians of the era he did not live Germany, he played for the Nazi dignitaries in Jews-free orchestras, and his opposition to the Nazi regime is unclear. He was not a Nazi party member, and he intervened to save lives of Jewish musicians, but yet was used a propaganda tool until the very end of the war.
The balance of the movie lies in the balance of the superb acts of the two principal actors. Harvey Keitel plays the American prosecutor major Arnold, while Wilhelm Furtwängler is played by the Sweidish Stellan Skarsgård. Arnold is the opposite of Furtwängler in almost any plane. To his moral superiority enhanced (maybe not necessarily) by filmed reports from the death camps is opposed Furtwängler's ambiguity and doubts, but his rudimentary culture is no match for the European refinement of the director. Keitel gives a strong act, maybe a too strong one, as his rudeness opposed to the doubts and maybe remorse of the German seem to give to the musician a postume and probably not deserved absolution.
The last scene shows Furtwängler living the building where the interrogation happened in the sounds of Beethoven's Fifth. The director switches to a real filmed concert with the same music, at the end of which Furtwängler shares hands with a Nazi dignitary (may have been Goebels, the Nazi minister of propaganda). The he is shown (twice, once in close plan) wiping his hand as in some kind of cleaning act. The question remains if a handkerchief is enough to clean somebody who shook hands with the Devil.