The first image most of us had of music and the Third Reich was watching each von Trapp tyke sing "auf Wiedersehen, good night," bow off the stage, slip into the night, surmount a few low hurdles, and climb a couple of mountains to freedom. Loosely based on a true story, The Sound of Music did not wallow in any moral ambiguities or gray areas: For the captain and Maria the decision to flee was as easy as one, two, three, as was the escape itself. A three-note score. In reality, of course, the struggle under the Nazis was far more complex.
So is Taking Sides, a movie also about music during Hitler's reign, which is both challenging and timely, playing as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival. It forces you to deal with conflicting emotions about what is good and evil and that ever-troubling middle ground. As the United States prepares for almost inevitable war, we are asked to allow certain means to achieve a just end -- should we hold people without trial in Guantanamo, even chancing that a few might be innocent, in order to win a broader victory of good? Are passive participants in an al Qaeda-fused region just as guilty as active ones?
But back to 1946, when Americans were leading de-Nazification trials in occupied Berlin. Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the greatest conductors of the Twentieth Century, is being interrogated by aggressive American Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel). Furtwängler had been the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the Third Reich, even leading the orchestra for Hitler's birthday and the Nuremberg Rally. Correction, the eve of the rally. It is one of the subtle distinctions that make this story so complex. Why didn't Furtwängler leave in 1933 like so many other artists, Arnold demands? Why would he play for Hitler on his birthday or any other day?
Showing as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at the Hotel Inter-Continental in downtown Miami, and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami campus
At first the overly hostile and morally superior Arnold, in a wonderful turn by Keitel, incites anger at the accuser and sympathy for the compromised German. Stop hounding the older man. Isn't this what arrogant Americans do, what Nazis do? It's an uncomfortable feeling, nicely extricated by Hungarian director István Szabó, of Mephisto fame. This reaction is reinforced by two supporting characters, Germans who are helping Arnold. One is the daughter of a famous dissident; the other is Jewish and had escaped when the Nazis took over. But both flinch at the crude and -- from their perspective -- disrespectful way that a man of such genius is treated. They both feel that the conductor, never a member of the Nazi party and who did indeed help Jewish musicians, was creating high culture at a time when culture was dying, and that that was a form of opposition. By not leaving the country, he was trying in some way to save the good German, in an era when resistance meant death.
But Keitel's Arnold is unforgiving, and his arguments begin to change the emotional flow of the film. This wasn't a grandfather who kept his head low in his little apartment. This was the head of one of the greatest world symphonies. All of his rivals, with the notable exception of Herbert von Karajan (worth another movie altogether), left; his great Italian counterpart Arturo Toscanini had flatly rejected working in Mussolini's Italy in favor of the U.S. Furtwängler toured Europe playing the German classics at a time when Germany was leveling that continent's cities, and profited from his high position. His own arrogant belief that culture and politics should not be mixed grows thin. Eventually Arnold, who has seen Bergen-Belsen, delivers a devastating blow: If the maestro really didn't know what was happening to the Jews, why did he claim to have "saved" so many?
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Skarsgård does a good job of portraying someone compromised yet vulnerable, who when pressed reveals a haughty, distant man who refuses to truly see the evil his country had perpetrated. But how much of a crime is that? Do we punish people for being weak? It's worth contemplating, as next year we may be asked to deliver similar judgments on purveyors of culture in Baghdad.