Istvan Szabo's "Taking Sides" is a rarity - an intelligent and moving drama of ideas that becomes increasingly thrilling as the ideas unfold.
His interrogator, U.S. Army Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) of the Denazification Committee, is charged with the task of revealing and destroying Furtwangler. And to Arnold, Furtwangler is a coward who immorally lent his fame to the Nazis. He refuses to be impressed even when he learns that Furtwangler used his connections to save hundreds of Jewish musicians. It was "his insurance policy," Arnold says with a contempt that suggests Edward G. Robinson's Keys in "Double Indemnity."
"Taking Sides" was adapted from Ronald Harwood's ("The Pianist") play, and though it has been "opened up" to include symphony performances, outdoor scenes and even newsreel footage of the actual Furtwangler, it's still basically a battle of wits between two men in a single room with two witnesses, Arnold's assistants, the Jewish-American Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu) and the German Emma Straube (Birgit Minichmayr). Both are sympathetic to the musician, and, I must confess, I am, too.
Furtwangler remains one of my all-time favorite conductors.
But where do Szabo and Harwood stand? Eventually we know, though Harwood takes great pains to keep the argument balanced.
This movie, like Elia Kazan's of "A Streetcar Named Desire," is magnificent piece of theater-as-cinema, with performances so intense, backgrounds so evocative, the camera so ingeniously placed and the tempo so crisp, it's impossible to be bored. As Arnold, Keitel is tirelessly cynical, relentlessly invasive. As Furtwangler, Skarsgaard really gives the impression of a great musician in torment, tied to his native Germany and repelled by its wartime brutalism. The resolution of the film is witheringly sad. So is that last newsreel shot of the real Furtwangler where Szabo shows us what he believes the artist really thought of his evil masters.
Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Running Time: 1:45. No MPAA rating (family, with some mature themes and language).