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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Taking Sides
Taking Sides
New Yorker Video // Unrated // April 27, 2004
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted July 2, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Taking Sides is the 2001 film from renowned director István Szabó, director of Sunshine and Mephisto, and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Pianist. It has also gone completely unnoticed by the majority of the movie-watching public, and the reasons why are not very difficult to discern. The film is a slow, investigative character piece in which there is little to no action, a slow, methodical pace, and no massive payoff in which the lead character vanquishes the evil bad guys with a nuclear-powered spear gun or something akin to that. Instead, Taking Sides presents a film of moral ambiguity, presenting a case to the viewer to ponder endlessly while almost (but not completely) refusing to position itself on the issue.

 In post-World War II Berlin, Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), an American investigator, has been charged with the task of building a case against Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard), the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the entirety of the Nazi regime. Known as "Hitler's bandleader", Furtwangler remained in Germany after many leading artists and musicians fled the country. While many of them were Jews fleeing persecution, many others were Gentiles who left out of moral and political outrage. Furtwangler stayed behind... but why? Major Arnold's mandate is in line with the rest of the Army's directives: to not only go after the war criminals themselves, but the major artistic and creative personnel who helped contribute to the Nazi propaganda machine.

But was Furtwangler a true Nazi, a patriotic German, or a man whose resistance to the grotesque, inhuman Nazi regime could only be achieved by working alongside those who he truly detested? The film presents the argument that Furtwangler did help save the lives of many Jews, while at the same time issuing anti-Semitic statements and even going so far as performing at Hitler's birthday celebration. He claims that his music was essential in bringing joy and comfort to the hearts of the German people in the midst of war and Nazi subjugation. Yet he was lionized and paraded by upper echelon of Nazi regime, dealing first-hand with figures like Goering, Goebbels, and Hitler himself.

Taking Sides, for the most part, doesn't take sides (at least until the final, haunting shot), but the filmmakers do slant their sympathies towards Furtwangler. Harvey Keitel's performance as Arnold isn't necessarily one-note, but the film pits him as a brutal, unsympathetic bulldog who mercilessly interrogates and belittles Furtwangler at every opportunity. Arnold is ostensibly the "good guy", but we find it extremely difficult to cheer for him. He is also given a staff consisting of a German-American Jew (Moritz Bleibtreu) and the daughter of a German officer (Birgit Minichmayr) who died during an abortive uprising against Hitler. Both have reasons to loathe Furtwangler, yet they still admire and sympathize with the man. They eventually find themselves at odds with Arnold's relentless assault on Furtwangler, and their considerations make Arnold seem even more monolithic. Adding to the ethical murkiness is the fact that the film doesn't clearly present the case that Furtwangler was truly concerned with the plight of Jews in Germany, or the ongoing genocide being carried out in the name of the German people. 

Yet despite these flaws, Taking Sides is a compelling, well-acted and thought-provoking film that asks many questions that are left for the viewer to answer. 

The DVD

Video:

Taking Sides is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing happiness. Objectively, the transfer seems acceptable but unremarkable. The image suffers from some noticeable low-level noise and edge-enhancement, while image detail is slightly soft. Colors are satisfactory if slightly muted in several scenes, and contrasts appear weak and murky during darker scenes and sharp and defined during brighter scenes. The print from which the transfer was struck is quite clean, free of debris, wear, and other debilitating factors.

Audio:

The audio is presented in a quite strong Dolby Digital 2.0 mix. The film opens with a booming rendition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, demonstrating excellent dynamic range, deep bass, and aggressive surround activity. The soundtrack maintains its quality throughout the film, with excellent dialog clarity and impressive (if albeit limited) usage of the soundstage. I would have enjoyed hearing a full six-channel audio presentation of the film (such a mix does exist for other Regions), but there's very little to fault here.

Extras:

A six-minute Behind The Scenes segment contains video of footage shot on the set, featuring some production footage and a few off-the-cuff moments, but it's mostly silent and offers little in terms of compelling material. The Interviews section contains interviews with cast members Stellan Skarsgard, Moritz Bleibtreu, Ulrich Tukur, and Birgit Minichmayr, as well as crew members Istvan Szabo, Yves Pasquier, Lajos Koltai, Ronald Harwood, and Ken Adam. The film's two-and-a-half minute trailer is also included, as well as the DVD production credits.

Final Thoughts

Although the transfer is rather average and the supplements are somewhat on the skimpy side, Taking Sides is definitely recommended by this viewer. I was mesmerized by Stellan Skarsgard's performance in this film. His quiet reserve and emotional restraint is contrasted by Keitel's explosive aggression, while Bleibtreu and Minichmayr also lend a sense of melancholy and dignity to their roles. This is a film well worth seeing, as it seems most have missed Taking Sides its first time around.

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