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MOVIE REVIEW

Taut 'Taking' asks tough questions

Wilhelm FurtwÃangler was a confounding fellow. One of the 20th century's most renowned conductors, he held the baton at the Berlin Philharmonic for years. And in 1933, after Adolf Hitler rose to power, FurtwÃangler not only chose to remain in Germany as scores of Jewish artists were expelled but continued to tour Europe with the orchestra as a de facto representative of the Third Reich. Hitler in fact adored him, choosing him to play concerts for some of the FÃuhrer's big occasions, and FurtwÃangler complied.

The powerful new Istvan Szabo film, ``Taking Sides,'' asks why. Actually, it practically shakes down FurtwÃangler for answers. How much consorting with Hitler and the gang did he do? Do you have to be a member of the Nazi Party to be of the Nazis? And is art really any kind of excuse for casting a blind eye on evil? Szabo, who's Hungarian, has been exploring the philosophical dimensions of Nazi-era Europe for much of his career, but ``Taking Sides,'' in pitting politics against art and ego, plays as a swifter cousin to Szabo's 1981 ``Mephisto,'' a Faustian allegory of how brilliant acting can save your life. ``Taking Sides'' is his best film in decades.

Szabo directs from Ronald Harwood's adaptation of his stage play; Harwood also wrote Roman Polanski's ``The Pianist,'' but his second helping of Holocaust studies is more heated, where his previous serving was wrenching and plaintive. It's so crisply argued that you might find yourself debating with the screen.

``Taking Sides'' employs a prosecution/self-defense structure. For the prosecution, the Army has dispatched Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) to perform a pretrial interrogation of FurtwÃangler (Stellan SkarsgÅard) before he faces the American Denazification Committee. Arnold's mission is simple, really: prove that FurtwÃangler had Nazi ties. ``He represents everything that's wrong with Germany,'' goads his ranking officer, played by R. Lee Ermey. The Army couldn't have selected a more unforgiving hunter than Keitel's Arnold. In civilian life, Arnold investigates insurance claims, and here he does his military job with loads of philistine contempt but zero compassion.

Before admitting FurtwÃangler into his spacious chamber, Arnold makes him wait in the hallway. The major is never less than hostile, bullying the conductor with polished Army attitude from behind his big mahogany desk. For his part, FurtwÃangler sits there, steadily appalled by Arnold's jabs. As FurtwÃangler, SkarsgÅard looks sturdier, older, and sorrier than we've seen him. The maestro's pallor is remarkable; he looks stricken with something, though he'd be the last to admit it's guilt that's given him such a wan and clammy look.

FurtwÃangler absorbs Arnold's fury, bravado, and spittle with muted denials. It's brave, almost noble, what SkarsgÅard has agreed to do: play the sort of accused whose innocence becomes increasingly less ambiguous by the question. ``Taking Sides'' is out to get FurtwÃangler in the same bullish manner as Arnold. And it's hard to deny the film its outrage. FurtwÃangler, in his spotty ideological reasoning, is as haughty as Arnold is punishing. The conductor pledges his allegiance to his art - and shouldn't that excuse him from blame? Szabo and Harwood like him even less for wondering.

But the film skillfully complicates the matter of how we judge FurtwÃangler by having Arnold's two German Jewish assistants - played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Birgit Minichmayr, who are both excellent - vocalize their support for FurtwÃangler. Bleibtreu's young lieutenant and Minichmayr's secretary (a concentration camp survivor) offer counterpoint to the major's conviction. They're both fans of FurtwÃangler, and they wish the boorish American would be more respectful of the conductor's contribution to Germany's high culture. Arnold finds this galling and symptomatic of how Germany is spellbound by Hitler. He's not here for nuance.

Nonetheless, ``Taking Sides'' itself proves acutely subtle. But its question of what we forgive art in the face of atrocity and immorality is one for the ages. Arnold's job is to be the ugly American. And in a sense, he has the comfort of knowing that no matter how nasty he gets, the truth he is looking for will always be nastier.

*** 1/2

Wesley Morris can reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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