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This year’s elections promise to be the most partisan in decades, with startling numbers of voters not merely expressing a preference for change but consumed by abject hatred of the current administration. If a citizen feels so strongly that his government’s behavior is irredeemably immoral, just what should he do — apply all his energies to sway public opinion or completely dissociate himself to await better times? How about artists, whose visibility imposes a special obligation to wield their influence responsibly — should they continue their endeavors in the hope that audiences will come to empathize with their humanistic views or emigrate to exert pressure from abroad? Do integrity and impact demand intensive activism or decisive retreat? While it’s fine to ponder such moral issues in the comfort of intellectual abstraction, practical choices are more limited in less-tolerant societies where dissent can have dire consequences. These and other thoughts are prompted by “Taking Sides,” a 2001 movie directed by István Szabó and written by Ronald Harwood (based on his play). Although its exhibition has been sporadic (it first came to Washington last week courtesy of AFI, but is already gone) it’s a highly effective and generally responsible depiction of the Allied investigation to prepare for the denazification trial of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Aside from some fictionalized contrivances there are no new revelations, but often it takes a mainstream dramatization to bring significant moral issues to public attention. Furtwängler was Germany’s leading conductor at the time of Hitler’s ascent. But while nearly all the other notable musicians fled out of necessity or conscience, Furtwängler stayed. Deeply intellectual and cultured, Furtwängler believed in a complete separation of politics and art. He regarded Nazism as a temporary nuisance, a passing phase in German politics having no relevance to the permanent cultural Germany of which he was a proud member. He also believed in music as a force for moral good that would lead humanity out of chaos and felt it his responsibility to keep spiritual values alive in Germany’s darkest hour. Throughout World War II, Furtwängler tread a precarious tightrope. He tried to distance himself from the Nazi regime — he never joined the party, refused to give the Nazi salute (even when Hitler, who deeply admired him, was present), wouldn’t perform in halls where swastikas were displayed, avoided appearing at official functions, refused to begin concerts with the Nazi anthem, and scorned the fawning patriotic works that flooded other concert programs. He got away with such treasonous conduct because the Nazis needed him as a bulwark against foreign accusations that their regime was barbaric and inimical to culture. And Furtwängler took full advantage of the respect he commanded — research has documented that he saved many dozens of Jewish lives despite great personal risk. As Paul Minchin, past chairman of the English Furtwängler Society, aptly observed: “It takes far more courage to oppose a totalitarian regime from within.” Indeed, Furtwängler may have had far more valor than Toscanini and other self-proclaimed champions of humanity who branded him a coward for staying behind but lobbed their verbal grenades from the safe harbor of the free world. Yet Furtwängler wasn’t a saint. While his artistry may have been intended to arouse the citizenry’s latent humanism, he invested the Nazi regime with credibility, provided musical balm to Hitler’s henchmen, and gratified his pride and ego through the honor and privilege he enjoyed, largely unchallenged by rivals. While he may have fervently believed in the nobility and permanence of German art, he wouldn’t allow that the glorious culture that once had produced Goëthe and Beethoven had rotted into a mire of jackboots and crematoriums. The German populace may have been uplifted, but their leaders remained impervious to aesthetic redemption as they slaughtered innocent millions. To the Allies, Furtwängler was “Hitler’s bandleader.” His choice to continue performing was condemned as self-serving, and his justifications were dismissed as hopelessly naive and as facile rationalizations. In the dying days of the Nazi regime, seeking to avenge his insolence and disloyalty, the Gestapo slated Furtwängler for liquidation. In February 1945, he escaped to Switzerland, where he would remain in limbo for nearly two years, unable to work pending a trial to assess his wartime role. That’s where “Taking Sides” begins. Any attempt to squeeze a complex historical/philosophical situation into the confines of a play or movie requires simplification and, to avoid a boring talkfest, a large dose of poetic license. Here, the drama is dominated by cynical American investigator Steve Arnold (played by Harvey Keitel), a cultural cretin who is crude, contemptuous, and downright nasty in his zeal to hold all Germans responsible for their war crimes. While the portrayal is an unfortunate caricature etched in poison of a stereotyped “Ugly American,” oblivious to any view but his own, Arnold’s towering rage is kindled and warranted by horrific footage of the bulldozing of corpses at Bergen-Belsen. His aides, a repatriated German Jew and the daughter of an officer executed for plotting against Hitler, both transcend the lust for vengeance their backgrounds would lead us to expect and instead rebel against the investigator’s excessive tactics and chronic arrogance to become champions of decency and compassion. Furtwängler himself (acted with great nuance and conviction by Stellan Skarsgard) is depicted as buffeted amid pride and humility, although his role seems more assertive and articulate than reports of the time would suggest. (Yehudi Menuhin had observed: “Furtwängler was the last of an age that did not expect a man to be both a creator and a salesman. He explained himself badly.”) The script’s focus on the mounting confrontations between the prosecutor and the artist is consistently enriched by atmospheric sets and cinematography — it opens as the camera tracks along row after row of German officers at a re-creation of a Furtwängler concert, and ends as strains of Beethoven follow the conductor down bureaucratic hallways, symbolically drowning out the investigator’s report to his superiors. Indeed, music appropriately provides an emotional context for much of the action, both literally (as when Furtwängler’s recording of the Adagio from the Bruckner Seventh, which he reportedly led on the eve of Hitler’s birthday, feeds suspicion of his capitulation) and figuratively (as when the transition to the finale of the Beethoven Fifth, presumably denoting a dawning of consciousness, underscores the investigators’ poring through war documentation). The details that spark the dramatic incidents run the gamut from plausibly accurate to wildly reckless. Among the more harmless but effective episodes are a power failure abruptly ending Furtwängler’s final Berlin concert, Russian intrigue to bargain for Furtwängler’s services, and a single 78 rpm side that impossibly includes both the first and second movements of Beethoven’s Fifth. Far more dubious and invidious are speculative insinuations that the Berlin Philharmonic musicians conspired to concoct tales of Furtwängler’s bravery, that his secretary procured groupies for his pleasure before each concert, and that damaging evidence arose from a “Hinkel archive” (which sounds more like a satirical reference to Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” than a slice of genuine history). And the concluding piece of newsreel footage in which he appears to wipe himself off after shaking an official’s hand, presumably intended to signal the director’s ultimate empathy for Furtwängler’s predicament, is so heavily edited as to appear fake and thus utterly worthless as the documentary evidence it purports to be. The central conflict is presented with sufficient ambiguity to raise important questions without asserting simplistic answers. Despite the overbearing role of the investigator and a theatrical tendency toward emotive confrontation, the dialog is often quite cogent, as when Arnold challenges Furtwängler with a key question: How could he claim ignorance of the Holocaust while spending so much time saving Jews — did it never occur to him why Jews needed to be saved? And Furtwängler’s ultimate reflection may ring hollow, but is perhaps the only possible way to bridge the gaping chasm between his private intention of cultural preservation and widespread public perception of support for a degenerate regime: He simply asks (without expecting an answer) whether we really want to live in a material world of clear-cut fact without the hope and promise of art. “Taking Sides” gives viewers much to ponder, not just about Furtwängler but about the complex and lingering issues his case raises. Yet, there’s one piece of the puzzle — perhaps the most relevant one of all — that the movie never considers. Despite the platform of his lofty position, Furtwängler never purported to be an orator, preacher, or statesman. Rather, he was an artist and deserves to be judged, at least in part, by his work. Surviving recordings of his wartime concerts provide a far more reliable index to his conscience than his own words or others’ post-facto abstract musings. Wartime performances by Herbert von Karajan, Karl Bohm, Clemens Krauss, Alfred Cortot, Walter Geiseking, and other Axis amoralists reveal musicians utterly at peace with themselves, comfortably nestled in their insular worlds of abstract artistic contentment, blissfully insensible to the horrors around them. But Furtwängler’s output of the time is of a wholly different dimension, ranging far beyond the bounds of accepted performance tradition, distended by brutally twisted structures, intense tempos, jagged phrasing, bizarre balances, and violent dynamics, all indicating a sensitive and deeply troubled man torn by inner conflict and wrenching doubt. Debate over Furtwängler’s wartime politics may continue to swirl among academics, historians, social philosophers, playwrights, and now filmmakers, but his artistry confers the ultimate proof of his humanity. Arnold and even his historical counterparts may have tuned it out, but no one sensitive to the interpretation of music could possibly mistake it. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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