TAKING SIDES (2001) seemed like it would be an interesting thing — scripted by Ronald Harwood (THE DRESSER, THE PIANIST) from his play, directed by Istvan Szabo, and starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård, based on a fascinating historical situation: the “denazification” by American investigators of acclaimed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.
And indeed, the film is pretty compelling, even if it never quite finds a style. Aided by the great production designer Ken Adam, Szabo stages some truly impressive large-scale exteriors, opening out the play with repurposed spaces (a market under a bridge, a library in a former synagogue). But this leaves the bulk of the drama — everything from the original text, in fact — to be staged in a single interior, and it has to be as cinematically interesting and finally more climactic.
Adam does something quite odd with this set. It’s very grand, but the view out the window is a b&w photograph.
In the useful making-of doc, we get to see this view in more detail, and it’s actually a very impressive cyclorama. But still, b&w. There’s one brief scene where the window view is overexposed, and it looks convincing. And at night, with snowfall, it looks convincing. But for most of the movie it just sits there, a stylised element in theatrical adaptation that’s trying to be realistic. Adam was a genius, so I’m sure he had a plan here. Something didn’t quite come together, maybe?
Keitel is a bit too shouty for my taste — but in the excellent interview book Ronald Harwood’s Adaptations, the author is able to justify this choice: “…the American occupation forces were deeply, deeply aggressive towards the Germans. They were shown the Nazi archive films, they had seen the evidence of the concentration camps, and they were angry.” Still, he feels rather broadly written and played, whereas the more contained Skarsgård is really excellent, embodying the mysterious star power Furtwangler was said to possess.
There are two things in the interview I wish Harwood had managed to work into his screenplay, actually.
- There are many stories, he tells us, of Furtwangler walking into rehearsals where someone else is conducting, and the orchestra would just start to play better, due to his very presence.
- Though Furtwangler played for Hitler’s birthday and just before the Nuremberg rallies, he also protected Jewish musicians. But what Harwood says in the book that isn’t in the film is that he only protected the best musicians. Like he saw the Holocaust as an opportunity to winnow down the field. I mean, Oskar Schindler didn’t just rescue the most skilled machinists, did he?
The book could do with more rigorous proofing (there’s stuff like “Carol Reid”) but it’s a small-press product and what counts is the illuminating content — it’s an encounter with a master craftsman and it makes me want to check out THE DRESSER (both versions) and THE PIANIST and OLIVER TWIST again.
You can check out Furtwangler’s talents right here ~