This one-set play turned into a sometimes powerful, talky movie takes a
rather esoteric incident from World War II as a polemic that will appeal to a
limited audience. It's a variation on the theme of Nazism and the holocaust,
making sparkling verbal drama out of the clash of opposing sides.
The Nuremburg Trials brought the leaders of the third reich to justice for
their war crimes. But what to do about the great German conductor Wilhelm
Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard)? Does his crime of remaining on German soil
and concertizing for the party and its leadership rise to the level of
inhumanity that characterizes the other defendants? Captain Steve Arnold
(Harvey Keitel), a prosecuting attorney for the tribunal, is convinced it
After setting up his offices in a still standing building in a demolished
Berlin shortly after the allied victory, welcoming his appointed assistant,
fraulein Emmi Straube (spunky Birgit Minichmayr), and agreeing to the
presence of Lt. David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu) as a potential attorney for
the defense, Captain Arnold sets out to interview every member of the Berlin
Philharmonic to prepare for his ultimate questioning of the object of his
wrath, Furtwangler himself.
Like a cat playing with his prey before the big bite, Arnold digs beneath the
surface that each member attempts to present as truth, chipping away at the
virtual impregnability of his famous, respected quarry. What he develops as
his primary evidence that Furtwangler was, indeed, a Nazi, are the facts
behind his playing for Hitler. But the facts are less than absolute.
Demeaning him in any way possible for a civilized man, Arnold finally brings
the big man in for questioning and for the central conflict in this
dramatization. As a man who has enjoyed the pinnacle of worldwide respect now
brought down off such loftiness to stand against an accusatory enemy,
Skarsgard is immense as he goes through the emotions such a man would likely
feel. In turns, he shows us blustery pride, confusion, defensiveness and a
moment or two of uncharacteristic doubt. It's a role that is artful
revelation of a character on award-level caliber.
Keitel seems awkward but essentially convincing in a single-minded attack-dog
persona of the prosecutor in action. His part was played on the Broadway
boards originally by Ed Harris. The rest of the cast is fine, with the
standout personality of Minichmayr's as a woman determined to be efficient
but ultimately compromised emotionally by her boss's cruel treatment of his
The movie takes the audience beyond that of the play by showing actual prison
camp footage and using relevant locations beyond the sole office set where
the main drama unfolds, widening its theatrical scope. But the limited
appeal of the subject matter remains its weakness for the film made in 2001
which, tellingly, took two years to find distribution.
If you enjoy such arthouse fare as "The Guys" (/a>(first responders on 9/11), "Max" (a polemic on a proposed
Hitler) or the all-talk session, "My Dinner With Andre" you should have this
one on your to-see list. You may then be as spooked as I was by a final
piece of footage that leaves a considerable question in its wake.
After much of the debate revolving around whether the maestro played for
Hitler on his birthday as an admirer or merely, as Furtwangler's
defensive dialogue has it, that he was tricked into the performance, we see
as a film coda in actual footage the real Furtwangler putting a handkerchief
in the hand with which he shook Hitler's after the concert as though to wipe
away the unwanted contact. Does that gesture have the meaning it suggests?
The filmmakers leave that for you to interpret but the implication is
fascinating in political and historical terms.
~~ Jules Brenner