HPPUB MOVIE REVIEW of Taking Sides, The Pianist, The Piano, The Piano Tuner


Title:  Taking Sides

Release Date:  2001

Nationality and Language: UK, Germany: English, German

Running time: 108 Min

MPAA Rating:  R  (not officially submitted)

Distributor and Production Company: MGB

Director; Writer: Istvan Szabo, written by and based on play by Ronald Harwood


Cast:   Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birgit Minichmayr


Relevance to HPPUB site:



During my abortive freshman college semester at William and Mary in 1961, I befriended a student John from California who shared my enthusiasm for classical music and claimed to have composed 57 symphonies. (He actually performed a piano concerto for me in a studio room in Ewell Hall and I can still recreate it.) We would get into friendly debates about “the real music” and the uselessness of buying girlfriends dinners that could go to $4.98 records.  One of his favorite conductors was the mysterious Wilhelm Furtwangler, master of  intensely romantic Viennese orchestra repertoire. (Actually, John sometimes said real music ends with Mozart, and you don’t play Beethoven until you’re thirty.) Furtwangler was by the early 60s totally eclipsed by the younger Herbert Van Karajan, and (for Beethoven interpretations especially), Otto Klemperer.


Furtwangler also composed, including three huge orchestral sumphonies (b minor, e minor, c# minor), and an hour-long piano concerto (b minor), the longest in the literature except for Busoni’s. The Second Symphony may be the best “known” and offers an apocalyptic finale, maybe the longest in any purely orchestral symphony (Mahler and Bruckner included). It concludes with a majestic peroration of a simple descending tetrachord theme, over which apparent quotes of Bruckners 8th Symphony and Wagner’s Gotterdamerung counterpoint up to the final crashing chords and octaves.


This little film probes into that, after opening with a simulated performance of the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth, which reaches the recapitulation when Allied bombs fall. For Furtwangler, a Gentile, stayed in Germany during the Reich and the War. Though, he says,  he never joined the Nazi Party, he cooperated with Hitler when he had to, accepting a ceremonial appointment as Prussian Privy Councillor. Furtwangler was perhaps the most purely German of the German romantics, but his world really comes more from Liszt and Wagner than Mahler.


So this gets into a few problems about morality, such as the “tainted fruits” problem that the American Left today accuses rich people of. Really, it’s on several levels and it bears careful thought.  Furtwangler offers the theory that Arts and Politics are to be separate, but of course the Nazis (as did the Soviets) included the control of Culture as part of their ideology, for pre-Internet propaganda purposes. For Furtwangler went along (“live and let live”) in order to be able to keep working, enjoy a comfortable career, and possibly maintain a competitive position with regard to younger conductors (Van Karajan). He depended on an “evil” source for his well-being, though he did not participate directly in the crimes. (The next level, of course, is committing the actual acts because “the boss orders you to.”) This is interesting to me because I had a period in my life where I was publicly fighting the military gay ban but depending on the military in a civilian context for livelihood, and I did something about this. More today the law holds people responsible for their own wrongdoing even in the workplace on the orders of bosses, and sometimes invalidates gains from illegitimate sources. An in international law, there is a question as to what extent non-combatants who benefit from a destructive regime should be punished ex post facto for their benefit from it.


There is a big moral problem for artists and writers today. Most people have to “take sides” in order to get a paycheck. So when people take sides publicly to get paid, do they lose their credibility later of they want to write on their own?


Then, after VE day and early during Allied occupation of Berlin, an Army major Steve Arnold played by Harvey Keitel is tasked with interrogating Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard) in the anti-Nazification of the leadership of German culture. Most of the movie consists of the interrogation sessions (with appropriate manipulation of Furtwangler) where  Arnold and Furtwangler argue past one another. A younger legal assistant (Moritz Bleittreu), Jewish himself, tries to play devils advocate.  In the end, Furtwangler will be acquitted, but for a long time is forbidden to participate in public life and is eclipsed by Karajan. His punishment sounds like the modern equivalent to taking a writer away from his computer or the Internet.


The film skillfully reproduces 78 rpm recordings made by Furtwangler, at one critical point playing the c# minor Adagio from the Bruckner Symphony #7. In fact, my friend John gave me a copy of an old London Knappertsbutch recording of this work in 1961 when he visited me shortly after my expulsion, so this brings back memories.


Although there are some side excursions with other characters (one of whom vomits when confronted by Arnold of his moral complicity), a lot of this film is “talk,” directly taken from the stage play. There is at least one outdoor scene that recreates bombed Berlin, but most of the time the ruins are seen through windows as black-and-white matte paintings, whereas the sets in the film have a saturated, golden brown look.  Szabo is clearly interested in the historical mystery and its moral dimension, but the film (to use the Sonata language in the script) is too much exposition, too little development. With more money, perhaps, the film could have shown alleged incidents in Furtwangler’s cooperation with the Nazis as flashbacks. That is similar to what I contemplate with my own material in screenwriting treatments.


I saw this at the AFI Silver Theater in the D.C. area, and the film is apparently directly imported from a German distributor, a practice more common with European films. It is regrettable that American film distributors have shied away from the business of important foreign educational and documentary films.


This film is often compared to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2001), with Adrian Brody as a Jewish pianist who survives Warsaw until the Russians liberate it (and in one climatic scene uses his ability to play a Chopin G minor Ballade—used in horror flick Mill of the Stone Women—to free himself.  There is a scene in an episode of TheWB Everwood where Ephram tries to persuade a pal to rent this film and falls on deaf ears.  This is the other side of the argument. The movie shows chilling scenes of anti-Semitism, as when an apartment neighbor finds him out and calls “Jew” as he flees the building.


Do not confuse this with The Piano (1993, Miramax, dir. Jane Campion), a film set in 19th Century New Zealand where a woman Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) gives piano lessons to try to win back the piano that her arranged-marriage husband Alisdiar Stewart (Sam Neil) has sold to a neighbor, George Baines (Harvey Keitel). The music score includes a new piano concerto, somewhat Glass-like, by Michael Nyman.


The Piano Tuner (or just “The Tuner,” 2004, Pygmalion, dir. Kira Muratova, Ukraine, black-and-white, 154 min, R) is another abstract Russian crime caper. A humble piano tuner Audrey (George Deliyev) aspires to make enough money for his love Lina, so he turns to a like of Russian hacking and computer crime with the unwitting help of an elderly aristocratic woman. The bw photography is glorious—you feel the greens of the shrubbery near the streetcar or the brown bank furniture while everything is still in shades of gray, often with lots of sharp angles and lines. It’s a bit long for a comedy. Valentin Silvestrov composed the Mahleresque orchestral score, and there are many passages of piano music (the Beethoven Pathetique, some Mozart), often played on out-of-tune pianos. I recall the mid 1970s when piano tuners came to my Cast Iron Building apartment in New York City. The film has a funny dialogue that drives a wedge between “freedom” and “individualism” over the goal of “peace.” The discussion wavers around and suggests various sociological seesaws—rationalism v. intuition, objectivity v. subjectivity, individualism v. communalism, private choice v. assigned family and community responsibility, all of this central to ideology, but rather odd from a film coming from the domain of the former Soviet Union.


Related reviews: The Piano Teacher


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Email me at Jboushka@aol.com