Lisa Schwarzbaum
September 12, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Taking Sides

Current Status
In Season
105 minutes
Limited Release Date
Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birgit Minichmayr
Istvan Szabo
New Yorker
Ronald Harwood
Historical, Drama

We gave it a C-

Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, was never a member of the Nazi Party, but he was Adolf Hitler’s favorite maestro and played at Party functions: Does that make him complicit in Nazi evils? Furtwängler used his position to save hundreds of Jewish musicians from concentration camps, yet he never denounced the murderers who afforded him his honors and status: Did he do enough? He loved his country and was devoted to the civilizing effects of great music: Should more be required of any artist?

Taking Sides lays out big issues with pedagogical fervor, and this may be enough for an ethics-class lesson plan. It was barely enough, however, to motor the 1995 stage play of the same name by Ronald Harwood (who expanded on notions of good, evil, chance, and survival in his crisper screenplay for ”The Pianist”). And now, with Harwood’s script fancied up by director István Szabó into a crescendo of speeches declaimed in hushed, artistically distressed German settings lit like ruined cathedrals, the sides to consider in ”Taking Sides” are all but obscured by cinematic pomposity at best, Holocaust porn at worst.

Harwood’s theatrical structure contributes to the movie’s problems. He bases his drama on the actual postwar, pretrial investigation of Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgard) by Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) of the American Denazification Committee, and what’s already strident in the script is made worse by Keitel’s heavy-stomping performance as an antielitist, culture-deficient Yank. (Skarsgard does slightly better by Furtwängler, locating the proud, the shamed, the arrogant, and the naive in a great artist brought low.) The finer points of polemic are presented by Arnold’s German secretary (Birgit Minichmayr), a concentration-camp survivor, and the major’s German-born, Jewish-American Army assistant (”Run Lola Run”’s Moritz Bleibtreu).

The string-quartet-shaped arguments are loud enough, but Szabó goes for intolerable fortissimo when he resorts to flashing newsreel footage of bulldozers scooping tangled piles of dead bodies as a way of equating Furtwängler’s silence with death. The effect is discordant, unharmonious — images of the real dead borrowed to enhance a Harvey Keitel outburst.

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