Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Taking Sides

István Szabó has spent most of his career making movies about Europe in the 20th century, studying how common folk–especially artists–respond to decade after decade of war, fascism, and cultural revolution. The director peaked with 1999's sweeping Sunshine, which covered 100 years in a pointed story filled with the compromise of assimilation. His 2001 follow-up Taking Sides is smaller in scale, and recalls his 1981 Oscar winner Mephisto in its take on aesthetes in wartime. Adapted from a play by Ronald Harwood (himself an Oscar winner for last year's The Pianist screenplay), Taking Sides stars Harvey Keitel as a U.S. Army officer in charge of investigating Berlin Philharmonic conductor Stellan Skarsgård under the auspices of the American Denazification Committee in the years following WWII. Most of the movie consists of a self-righteous Keitel needling Skarsgård for staying in Germany and mounting performances for Hitler's staff during the war. Skarsgård, for his part, argues that he owed it to his country to stay and lift spirits through music, while working behind the scenes to get Jewish musicians out of harm's way. In the two years since it first played the festival circuit, Taking Sides has sat on a shelf, probably because there's not much more to it than the above description indicates. Skarsgård makes his case that special dispensation should be given to those living under the boot, Keitel lets it be known that he considers any cooperation with the enemy to be treachery, and the rest is all quibbling over matters of degree. Szabó makes Taking Sides look pretty, and he stages a couple of striking (though overly metaphorical) concert sequences during an air raid and a thunderstorm, playing to his strength as a documentarian to show how the mundane persists amid devastation. But elsewhere, Szabó gets lazy, relying on sad violin solos and Holocaust atrocity footage to add unearned depth. Meanwhile, Harwood's script reduces the characters to points in a political/philosophical debate, and both writer and director err in encouraging Keitel to play his investigator as a low-key working man, ignorant of classical music and inclined to make accusations casually and arrogantly, with lots of references to his civilian life as an insurance agent. Taking Sides is really no less simplistic than Sunshine, but its predecessor succeeded because of its length and scope. Taking Sides stays rooted in one place and one discussion, and never gets anywhere.

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