"Taking Sides" , Furtwangler and Systemic Evil
Istvan Szabo's film, "Taking Sides", an adaptation of a play by the same name was playing at the Ritz East in Philadelphia. It was a film that I wanted to see, but for some reason was not released in Philadelphia until last week; it played in New York in November. "Taking Sides", stars Harvey Keitel as Major Arnold, and Skellan Sharsgard as Wilhelm Furtwangler. The story explores the possibilities of politics using art as an instrument to further its claims of hegemony in the world. In this case, using the music of the Austro-Germanic traditions, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the conducting of the mystical Furtwangler as a weapon to secure its claims of the righteousness of their cause.
As seen throught the thoughts and actions of Major Arnold, Arnold wants to "prove" that Furtwangler was a Nazi, either as a card carrying one or at least as sympathizer. And as such just as evil in his way as Hitler was in his. The strength of Harvey Keitel's acting is his ability to act as the surrogate for American justice and American arrogance. For Major Arnold there is only black or white, right or wrong. This is in contrast to Furtwangler, played brillantly by Stellan Skarsgard, a brooding, mystical philosophic man of music and German high culture, where life is not black and white but a process of becoming.
This contrast of culture was played out in two scenes shown back to back. The first scene, is at a USO club with a big band and singer belting out "Route 66", with everyone jitterbugging. The second one, in the rain, with only the string quintet under cover ( the building of course bombed out), playing the adagio from Schubert's String Quintet, Furtwangler in rapt attention. T. Adorno would have been proud of these scenes.
For all the bluff and arrogance of Major Arnold he does have a point to make with Furtwangler. And it is very simply, maybe you are not personally evil, but you were a part of the system that was evil. And that makes you as culpable as anyone else.
In perhaps the defining scene, Arnold asks Furwangler ( he always called him a "band leader"), "Does he remember the music critic who criticized his conducting and his choice of music as archaic?" Furtwangler, answers " So what? What does have to do with anything?" Arnold, shoots back" didn't you tell Goebbels that you hated unwarranted criticism like that?" Furtwangler, puzzled, answers, "Yes, but it was unimportant, just a brief comment. Arnold, slyly asks,"Do you know what happened to him?" Furtwangler, answers, "No...no I do not." Arnold screams back, " Goebbels had him sent to the Eastern Front and he DIED AT STALINGRAD! He died because you did not like him, Goebbels could not stand Hitler's favorite band leader being unhappy!" Furtwangler's recognition that what he stood for and all that was good in German culture was for nothing. In fact it turns out that he and his high culture were nothing more than props and stooges for the systemic evil that pervaded Hitler, his henchmen, and the Germany the Nazis created. A realization that was both unpalatable and horrifying for him
The music was a mix of Furtwangler and Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Throughout Beethoven's Fifth Symphony hovered practically over every scene. There was a sprinkling of Bruckner's Seventh, in particular, the adagio.
And as mentioned before, Schubert's adagio of the String Quintet was played.
This movie, without being melodramatic, envisions the world as being scourged by the culpability of systemic evil, and no matter how cultured we seem, systemic injustice is always lurking around the corner.
The ending, with stock footage of the real Furtwangler concluding a concert, has a Nazi officer jumping up and reaching to shake hands with him. And in slow motion and repeated several times, we see Furtwangler reach into his pocket and pulling out a hankerchief, repeatly wiping his hands. An unconscious or conscious act of cleansing? you be the judge.