Cinema Signal:

Jewish Communities in Exotic Places

. "Taking Sides"

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 does.

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 illustrious suspect.

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Harvey Keitel, Moritz Bleibtreu and Stellan Skarsgard

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