The recent death of maverick filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl lends a bit of topicality to István Szabó’s worthwhile yet seriously flawed Taking Sides. Because of her association with Hitler, Riefenstahl (to the end of her 101 years) was denied ever making another film, and we were robbed of one of cinema’s consummate artists. Even as recently as the last decade, public outcry (in the form of censorship from the Left) blocked Riefenstahl from speaking about her films at the Goethe Institute in San Francisco. What politically correct do-gooders hope to achieve with such retroactive purges remains debatable; certainly we are poorer culturally as a result.
In Taking Sides, the famed Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler occupies the hot seat. Unlike many artists who fled Germany when the Nazis rose to power, Furtwängler stayed. He never joined the Nazi party, and like Riefenstahl, he maintained the unpopular point of view that art and politics were separate. The recordings Furtwängler made of Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies inspired generations of conductors who came after him—including Daniel Barenboim, who leads the Berlin Phil on the movie’s soundtrack. During the Nazi regime, Furtwängler helped Jewish musicians escape to freedom, yet after the war he was derided as no better than a gas chambers flunkie: his subsequent appointments to lead American orchestras were sabotaged by the same mindset that kept punishing Riefenstahl.
Unfortunately, this sumptuous production (where even bombed-out piles of rubble look exquisite) misses too many opportunities. The filmmakers keep Furtwängler at a distance, rarely portraying him outside endless interrogations; we never get a sense of the man. Furthermore, Stellan Skarsgård is too young for the role. Furtwängler was approaching 60 at the time of his denazification trial, and in the archival footage used he conveys a sense of delicacy. Skarsgård merely looks haggard. And Skarsgård doesn’t suggest the capacity of an artist who would muse over (as Furtwängler did in the 1937 tome Concerning Music) the “. . . half-moods of Mozart or the early Romantics, in which the soul itself seems not to know what it wants.” That leaves Harvey Keitel minding the shop, and Keitel runs with it. Defaced by a thinly tweezed variation on the Hitler moustache, Keitel, as Major Steve Arnold, re-invents his inquisitor role as a charming, smiling man—the sort of courtly, avuncular chap who melts your defenses even if you despise his politics. It’s a superb performance in a structurally haywire contraption. Taking Sides asks us to root for the Ugly American.
As Lydia, the statuesque and regal Rosario Flores looks magnificent in her matador regalia, a handsome coat of gold embroidery on crimson. Her somewhat mannish face offset by a voluptuous mane of hair that she coils imperiously for bullfights, Ms. Flores invites comparison to both Margaret Hamilton and the Seattle cabaret singer Julie Cascioppo. When she waves her cape in the ring, Lydia conjures up strength, power, and tantalizing ambiguity. Casting Flores in this role was the smartest move Pedro Almodóvar made in Talk to Her; killing her off in an unwelcome Forster-like twist a half-hour on was the least so.
This wildly overrated Spanish film turns out to be a hospital saga of women in comas and men who might as well be. As with Almodóvar’s earlier (and much worse) Law of Desire, boy-boy psychosis reigns supreme, and—lucky us—we’re treated to smarmily ironic set pieces wherein Lydia’s emotionally needy boyfriend, a 40-ish, stubble sporting egghead journalist, becomes over fond of a sycophantic gay male nurse, and the men make moo cow eyes at each other. Elvis Mitchell, processing words for the New York Times, declares: “…when it’s over, the realization of how much the movie means to you really sinks in; you can’t get it out of your heart.” Nor can Talk to Her be pried from the pit of the stomach.
Accentuating the positive, there’s a fine, understated performance by Geraldine Chaplin as a ballet mistress, and an appearance by the mesmeric Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, heard all too fleetingly in concert. – NPT