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Art, Politics, and 'Taking Sides': An Interview
with Istvan Szabo
'We believe that he sold himself to the Devil.' Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel)
Academy Award-winning director Istvan Szabo's _Taking Sides_ (2001) finds the Hungarian Filmmaker returning to previously explored themes such as personal responsibility and the impossibility of remaining neutral during wartime. The film follows the post-World War II interrogation of Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard), renowned symphony conductor of the 1930's, whose position as musical director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra during the war brought him into rather uncomfortably close proximity to the Nazi regime. Furtwangler was interrogated by the allies after the war ended as part of the *de-Nazification* program. Szabo's film tells the story of Furtwangler's interrogation by ruthless American Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel). Orchestra members vouch for Furtwangler's morality, telling Arnold a story of how Furtwangler had once refused to shake Hitler's hand, and how he had helped many Jewish players who had been banished from the orchestra. In the end, however, Arnold practically reduces Furtwangler to tears, accusing him of being a self-serving, ego-driven *artist*.
Although not the equal of Szabo's _Mephisto_ (1981), _Taking Sides_ manages to be thought-provoking as well as terrifying. One has no small trouble telling the bad guys from the good guys, surely a basic point for Szabo's film art.
Marty Fairbairn: Your film seems like a post-World War II continuation of themes that you previously explored in _Mephisto_. It's almost as if that character has survived the war only to be confronted with having to account for his apparent collaboration during the war, a more explicit treatment of similar themes. In _Mephisto_ everything seemed to be happening as it were under the surface, whereas in _Taking Sides_ everything is more overt.
Istvan Szabo: Yes. It's because it's an interrogation. And because it's something about the past, it's already happened, where _Mephisto_ was more like life; it happened slowly, step by step. This is a concentrated telling of the whole story.
M.F.: I found that one of the more interesting aspects of the earlier film was the slow, insidious nature of the character's co-opting by the Nazis.
I.S.: Yes, the character is being seduced.
M.F.: What are your own feelings about whether art and politics can ever be separated? It seems to me that you *don't* believe that art and politics can be separated, otherwise you wouldn't be making films of this kind.
I.S.: I don't think that you can separate art and politics because politics is life, and if you separate art and politics it means that art has nothing to do with life.
M.F.: Life is political and art is about life, so it is inevitable that art should be political?
M.F.: One of the things that struck me 20 years ago while watching _Mephisto_, and struck me again watching this latest film, is that one of the things you were interested in looking at was the nature of complicity. What constitutes complicity? Is it one's responsibility always to act out against a corrupt regime, or to, in perhaps more subtle ways, get around the system that one finds oneself in?
I.S.: I wouldn't like to have a choice between the two. I'd like to say that you have to know your limit. How far do you have to go? How far can you be pushed before you do something? Because if you ask the question -- what is your moral responsibility? -- if you have any decision of this kind, I'd have to say that you have only one solution: leave the country immediately. But the whole population cannot leave the country. And then what about a very very talented baker? Or a very talented teacher, or medical doctor? So, of course some prominent people can leave the country, but the whole population cannot. So, we have to ask the question: are they good enough and profound enough for everybody? So, you cannot ask Furtwangler why he didn't leave the country, because if you ask the question then you have to ask the baker at the corner: so, you made bread during the Nazi regime, why? So, you sold bread to the elite of the regime and so you supported the Nazis. This is the same question. Of course, the responsibility of the well known artist is different in wartime. But if you're going to be consistent, the questions have to be the same. So, I don't think that you have to leave your country. You may forget your mother tongue, but you have to find your limits, this is it. Beyond everything you have to know, OK, this is acceptable, this is not. And you have to compare, how can you best be of help to other people? How can you help to keep values in life? -- which is also very important.
M.F.: Also, I was struck by the Secretary character, Emmi, who has a lot to say to the young Lieutenant Wills about judging other people. I'd like to know if you believe that no one has a right to pass judgement on someone else, or is it merely that judgements, especially moral ones, are never simple but always complex, problematic, and many-sided?
I.S.: Exactly, I agree. So, life is not a fairy tale like the ones you heard as a child. You cannot decide between black and white because black and white doesn't exist.
M.F.: A related question, if I may. Harvey Keitel/Major Steve Arnold says at one point: 'Why did the Jews need saving in Germany if people had no idea what was going on?' That seems to me to be a question that strikes at the heart of a general supposition on the part of the Western countries, that the German people were at least tacitly complicit and understood what was going on, and yet did nothing. For me, this is quite simplistic and generated from a desire to just throw blame around. How would you respond to that?
I.S.: I cannot respond. I ask the question: if you knew nothing, then why do try to tell me that you saved the Jews, if you knew nothing? There are two possibilities: you got money for it, or you knew that you have to save them. So, if you knew that you had to save Jews, then you knew that you were living in a regime was destroying them, so what you are telling me is not true.
M.F.: There is an equivocation there. One can know something without knowing everything. One can know, for example, that people are being arrested, but not necessarily that people are being executed.
I.S.: Listen, I saw a BBC interview with Albert Speer, who was with the Ministry of War during the Hitler regime and served a 20 year sentence in prison. When he came out, he gave an interview and they asked him: Mr Speer, what do you think, are you guilty? And he said yes, I feel myself very guilty because I knew nothing about concentration camps and I'm guilty because I knew nothing about it. So, even 25 years after, you will find the way complicity.
M.F.: So, then, is there a range of complicity? In the case of the average German, the baker for example, is he less complicit than the artist?
I.S.: Yes, of course, Furtwangler was close to the power while the baker was far away, but the question is, does one leave one's country or not?
M.F.: Yes, he had the opportunity and he didn't take it. What about this whole question of whether or not to try to effect change from within? Is this always just a trap or can one sometimes do some good by staying and working within the regime?
I.S.: Well, of course there are heroes who choose to stay with the devil and try to save people or even try to kill him.
M.F.: Would you say that Furtwangler is one of them?
I.S.: I don't want to judge Furtwangler. It's a fact that he saved several people and helped several to escape. There are documents and there were even some people who came back to appear at his trial and testified that they were saved by him. So, Furtwangler is at a minimum an ambivalent character.
M.F.: Which is what you found interesting about him?
I.S.: Yes, this is the only thing, like Mephisto.
M.F.: Not an evil person, but one easily swayed by those who are.
I.S.: Yes, vanity is the artist's weakness; it enables seduction. Those are the problems, but they did nothing wrong. The problem is that if you once decide to be a whore, then you cannot start to cry if you have to make love for money.