An Internet search for Istvan Szabo’s films on the Reel.com Web database brings up the Hungarian director’s Academy Award-winning "Mephisto" and the other installments in his 1980s trilogy about characters compromised by war. Like those films, "Colonel Redl" and "Hanussen," Szabo’s newest release, "Taking Sides," returns to the battleground between conscience and collaboration.
The film, which opens Sept. 5, stars Harvey Keitel ("The Bad Lieutenant," "The Piano") as an American army officer doggedly investigating the wartime activities of the great German orchestra conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, played by Stellan Skarsgard ("Good Will Hunting," "Breaking the Waves"), who continued to perform under the Third Reich even while helping Jews escape. (See review.)
Szabo defends the need for further examination of the Holocaust as a warning against complacency in the face of dictatorship, and he resists having his work lumped with other films in the abundant Holocaust field. When told that as a "creative movie match" to his movies (which include the 2000 family saga "Sunshine") Reel.com lists Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Hollywood powerhouse "Schindler’s List," Szabo said he fails to see a significant connection.
"If this film, ‘Taking Sides,’ has relatives, you can find [them] in ‘Mephisto,’" Szabo said in a telephone interview from his home in Budapest.
A Jewish Hungarian native whose family survived the war in hiding, Szabo emphasizes the real-life connections between Furtwangler and Gustaf Grundgens, the actor whose rise to theatrical prominence under the Nazis inspired "Mephisto."
"The two people in reality were very good friends," Szabo said in heavily accented English. During filming in Germany, Szabo kept on his desk a photograph of the egocentric actor and the acclaimed conductor chatting with each other at a party thrown by Nazi authorities.
In "Taking Sides," Szabo endeavored to keep audiences from taking a side, either that of Furtwangler or Major Steve Arnold (Keitel), for too long.
Arnold (an insurance salesman from the Midwest who, after two years of battle, found himself in the courtyard of a concentration camp) is impassioned in his interrogations by moral outrage. "Please don’t speak to me about Beethoven," Szabo said in the character of Arnold. "Speak to me about Auschwitz."
Furtwangler was a national celebrity (he is compared in the film to Bob Hope and Betty Grable) who convinced himself that his music was necessary to bring comfort to his people. Although Nazi political rivals used him, he insisted that art and politics could remain distinct. He claimed ignorance of the Nazis’ murderous policies, but recognized the danger to the Jews he helped rescue.
In researching Furtwangler’s story (he died in 1954), Szabo discovered that after the Nazis’ rise, the conductor visited Paris and met with the Austrian-born Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was living there. Furtwangler asked if he should leave Germany, to which Schoenberg reportedly replied, "You must stay, and conduct good music," Szabo said.
Despite his newest film’s historical roots, Szabo’s aim in telling another story about an artist bound to the Nazi regime was to highlight a more universal dilemma. "I think it was more important to me to tell a story about somebody who [lives under] an authoritarian political regime," he said. "This is what I experienced myself, having the more than 40-year-long regime" of Soviet influence over Middle Europe.
Szabo said he had several opportunities to leave communist Hungary, but opted to stay because of family attachments. He has said that his work became his way to effect change from within the country. Without such resistance, artists might become pawns in the authoritarian power structure.
"Every dictatorship needs artists as they try to make the dictatorship an acceptable regime," Szabo said. "This is the danger, and artists have to know what the danger is."