Zoltán Dragon What is a composer worth without an orchestra?

István Szabó: Taking Sides - Der Fall Furtwängler

Györgyi Szakács, photo by Joseph Gallus Rittenberg
Györgyi Szakács,
photo by Joseph Gallus
79 KByte

István Szabó shot his latest film based on Ronald Harwood's chamber drama, Taking Sides, with considerable faithfulness to the text. Although Szabó has always been regarded as somebody who prefers making films according to his own ideas and scripts to making use of someone else's material, this is not the first occasion that he takes to adaptation. Of his feature films the best-known and most memorable ones are Mephisto (based on a short novel by Klaus Mann) and Colonel Redl (based on John Osborne's drama). We can find adaptations among his television films as well, such as Ősbemutató/World Premiere (Ferenc Karinthy), A Letter to My Father (Franz Kafka) and Macskajáték/Catsplay (István Örkény).

Taking Sides is not a grand historical movie spanning over generations, such as Sunshine: it is a chamber play which is, however, free from Szabó's earlier ambitions to show generations through his unique concept of history. Nevertheless, here, too, we can see several generations in the focus of analysis amidst the chaos of history, although more quietly (however hard the American major is beating the desk), but perhaps more thoroughly and conscientiously. The generations, ethnic groups, religions, ideologies are presented as filtered through those four people who are putting each other's nerves to the test day by day in their poorly furnished office. They came together to do justice, which is basically all right, but the leading "justice doer" had decided much earlier what the truth in capital letter was. He is simply unable to accept that this "block capitalised" truth is only a dream and only "small letter" truths exist and they sometimes (depending on how we look at them) put on the mask of injustice. This is all the matter of viewpoint and between the possible truths Szabó manoeuvres with refined sense: although the narrator is the major (with his own preconceptions), the voice of the implied author warns us not to make decisions too soon.

Major Arnold finally passes a harsh judgement on (i.e., he breaks the baton over) Furtwängler in the real and abstract sense of the word as well in one of the key scenes of the film (at least from a moral point of view). Furtwängler's conductor baton appears in the focus first in the credits: it represents a kind of axis, a boundary, the narrow thread holding on between the truth, wedged into the two words of the English-language title (Taking | Sides). This forecasts that the individual's truth can perhaps be found if one does not leave the route indicated by the baton. Because once one steps on either side, one will immediately see one's own truth in block capitals. This is what the major does when he passes a judgement over the conductor by breaking his baton. He is trying to destroy the conductor's truth and arguments rather problematically. First of all, the baton can be interpreted as the symbol of Furtwängler's art, since a conductor can be a conductor only with his baton and his orchestra. When the major breaks the baton, he passes a judgement not over Furtwängler's truth, but rather over his art, about which - as it turns out several times - he has not got a clue, since even Beethoven's name does not ring a bell to him (not to mention the cacophonic mass of sounds hallmarked by his name). The block capital truth of the major first trips here.

The other problem with the baton is that according to the unanimous statement of the members of the orchestra, this baton symbolises Furtwängler's resistance against Hitler: when he should have hailed in front of the Führer, Furtwängler waved his baton, avoiding the waving of the hand as salutation. It is an indecency in itself trying to prick the great leader's eyes with the baton of a great artist (what a beautiful historical scene it could have been!). So salutation does not take place, which could have meant the end of the artist's life at that time. Major Arnold symbolically breaks this resistance into two, although what he wants to prove is that the baton (symbolically speaking) was "fanning" Hitler's power diligently. If we look at the film from this angle, we see that the brave American insurance agent castrated his own arguments with this gesture.

The third problem with breaking the baton is nonetheless worrying, since it is a stolen one. Doing justice with a stolen baton? Is this the block-capitalised truth? The final judgement? Especially since he got it from an informer, a mediocre, untalented second violinist, loyal to every system - and here the moral superiority fails for the fourth time - and whom he already blackmailed? Szabó shows the problems of doing justice through these minor deeds in a sophisticated way. Arnold, faithfully to his original profession as an insurance detective, works hard to hinder cheating money out of the insurance company, and aims to prove that the reported water pipe leakage did not happen, moreover, water was not even installed in the place. He often says that this whole Furtwängler-case is very similar to his petty business and nobody should grovel before Furtwängler upon hearing magic words such as "artist" or "conductor": everybody here was a Nazi, he declares arrogantly.

By saying this, he accuses the whole German nation of being a gang of criminals and indeed: he would rather summon the whole nation for interrogation. From bad conscience he puts the emphasis onto a knowledge of sin. He judges the perpetrators and those who ignored the horrors around by the same standard and confronts them with the victims and the committed crimes. He refuses to diverge from it, because if he did not approach it with black and white dialectics, his cherished preconception would most probably collapse, after which there would be nothing he could hold on to. His aides, the American army lieutenant of Jewish origin and the daughter of the leader of the famous plot against Hitler are not really of any help in underscoring the accusations.

So, in the major's scenario, all those who keep silent, or who failed (or, indeed, refused) to notice the dreadful events definitely belong to those that committed the crimes, which results in an asymmetric balance of power: on one side there are the perpetrators and everybody else, while opposite them are the victims. In his eyes genocide is like a concert: there is someone who conducts it, while the others assist to him as the audience. So it becomes clear why he regards the world famous artist guilty, although the Russians would be more than happy to "rescue" him for themselves. (The figure of the Russian colonel was, actually, suggested by Szabó.)

Typical of the film and of Szabó's whole career that silence, not saying a word, half words, half finished sentences keep returning in each of his films, scene after scene. Apart from Bergman, he is perhaps the most talented in filming silence. This silence disturbs the major so much that he tries to destroy it by shouting and screaming (but at the end he is overwhelmed by Furtwängler's music), which speaks louder than any evidence. This is the silence of survival, which always hides an unspeakable secret (either unbearably painful and/or shameful). The psychological and psychoanalytical research aiming at the Holocaust-survivors was targeting this silence when examining perpetrators and the so-called indifferent people, as well as the victims (and the descendants of these groups).

According to Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On, as the result of the traumatic experience, people in each group speak of less significant events, which implies that this is how they try to conceal the unspeakable. The withheld secrets are connected to consciousness without meaning (verbalised content) and yet they influence thoughts, feelings and the behaviour, the result of which is that at the same time the individual knows something and yet he does not (1). This is called cryptamnesia (2), when the individual consciously represses a memory by taking no notice of it any more and erases every possible route, thought or other experience that could lead to this repressed trauma; or the memory is so painful and/or shameful that the psyche unconsciously forgets about it as a survival mechanism.

The secret repressed this way does not return as Freud suggested (the repressed secret always returns, he said), but it unconsciously controls the individual's communication and behaviour through - according to the research done by Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok - a "messenger", a phantom (3). Therefore the silence, too, is created by the phantom: silence lingers even if the individual wants to speak. As regards the Holocaust, it must be emphasised that this "haunting" generated by the phantom (the messenger of the secret-keeping crypt) in the families of survivors can be observed even at the level of the second generation. In such cases, parents transmit the secret even via the silence: thus the child knows nothing about it, since on the one hand the tragedy did not happen to him, while on the other hand they never speak about it.

Such unconcealed secrets haunt in Taking Sides. Everybody notices the secretary's silence, whose heroic father is known by all, still she does not seem to be proud of him, and confesses with peculiar shame whose daughter she was. Furtwängler's silence is also embarrassing, but he initiates the interrogation himself, because he wants to speak and clear himself (as he had already done before an Austrian Nazi exempting committee), but when he could finally talk, he falls into embarrassed silence. And there is the silence of the young Jewish lieutenant, who - at least according to the major's logic - could now (in the name of the Jews) take revenge on a Nazi (and all the Nazis through him). The three of them keep silent, while the absolute outsider is furious, referring to some kind of strangely interpreted conscience and the eternal truth.

At this point perhaps Anni of the film Father may spring to mind, who after a film-shooting - where the Jews are driven towards the ghettoes across the Chain Bridge in Budapest and she was an extra in the crowd - suddenly opens her heart to Bence and – interspersed with frightening silences and half said sentences - tells him about how her parents died.

She also speaks about how she travelled to Auschwitz, to have memories of the place where her parents and relatives died. Nevertheless, in the photos she took only well-dressed tourists can be seen, she says. One of the tourists might as well have been Major Arnold who watched the horrors, although only on film. For him, the whole thing is only revolting, outrageous and disgusting, but he is unable to experience it. The pain, the silence, those half sentences that Anni, or his own secretary, or even Furtwängler produce are completely incomprehensible for him. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, and Dan Bar-On, also speak about unspeakable, unutterable and invisible facts, when they are looking for the origins of silence, since they do not have, they cannot have access to these origins. Yet, and perhaps precisely because of this is why their effect is much stronger than that of any other speakable fear or pain. Of course, this unspeakability and invisibility also prevent the individual from unbearable pain from paralysing his or her operation. The major in the film wants to make this invisible visible and say what is unspeakable. He thinks this would undoubtedly identify the perpetrators and victims alike. Since perpetrators also had to repress their traumatic experiences (which on a second generation level haunts their unsuspecting children), as well as those who "ignored" it all (including Furtwängler, too) and who were the victims (as the lieutenant, indirectly, and the secretary, after her father). One of the most disturbing dramaturgic tricks of the film can also be traced here: we know too well that we should agree with the major by all means, since he is on the "right" side and he wants to sentence the guilty ones, he wants to cause suffering to those who tilted his life out of the Mid-Western Americans' boring, middle class, mediocre, but smooth lifestyle and expiates for their sins (which is in fact right). We, viewers, should immediately judge Furtwängler, since after all he was making friends with mass murderers (although with reservations), and yet we are unable to approach the situation like that, as Iván Sonnenschein in Sunshine is also struggling with his doubts when he needs to interrogate his former friend so that the result would definitely be a negative sentence.

Nevertheless, it is proven that in those who ignored the horror in their environment, repression of painful memories also played a significant role. If we see things from this angle it is obvious that the social environment played a part in keeping the silence. The big question of the film is why? The fact that we do not, moreover, we cannot get a clear answer also proves Szabó's sensitivity. He does not give his viewers the opportunity not to take into consideration the deliberate or unintentional concealing of deeds by human beings. Everybody has to pass a judgement (or face the facts), but not only on Furtwängler or the Nazis, or the Germans, but on the major as well and perhaps a little on themselves.

The major - maybe to prove he was right and make the guilty reveal himself and confess, but perhaps also to keep his anger, disgust and "truth" alive - often refers to documentaries that realistically show the horrors of mass slaughter without even trying to conceal it. When the lieutenant and the secretary tell him that they cannot bear it any more and would rather look for another job, the major projects the pictures where the dead bodies are being pushed into a mass grave. It is a painful and shocking scene, not only because of the pictures (although they are astonishing in themselves). Curiously, the secretary does not cover her eyes to prevent her from seeing the horrible pictures, but her mouth. It is not only the sight that shocks her, but rather something that touched upon some unspeakable secret inside her. Seeing these images evokes the horrible pain buried within the thick walled crypt in her, and the walls started to crack. She decides to run away rather than release her painful secret.

Using documentary footages is a typical Szabó trope. He has fitted a few parts into his films from the beginning of his career. Major Arnold learns about the Germans' guilt through these films and the documentaries are the ultimate evidence for him. Whatever others may say, he "saw" what had happened. However, the film - and we could take several further examples from Szabó's earlier movies, such as Sunshine - itself questions the authenticity of the documentary (here, of course, not the event itself is questioned, only the uncertainty of mediation is problematised). The major makes the mistake that Szabó already pointed out in 25 Firemen's Street, and later through the Sonnenschein family in Sunshine: "do not trust anybody, always examine everything yourself!" The major walks into the trap, since he fails to examine anything and gets information mainly from the doubtful news of an informer.

It is not the first time that Szabó employs the technique of copying his protagonists and characters into archive recordings, showing that the history of the individual and the nation, the country and the history can, in fact, converge at some points, moreover, could ultimately intermingle. As a matter of fact, the turning point in film history was Forrest Gump that, according to Vivian Sobchack, made the distinction impossible, with the help of which earlier we could tell of events with certainty whether they were "significant" or "trivial", or whether they were "facts" or "fiction", or they belonged to the "past" or the "present" or to "experience" or "representation" (4). This representational paradox (in which past, present and future, as well as the individual, the family and the society melt together) appears in Taking Sides, when Stellan Skarsgĺrd, playing Furtwängler, turns up in contemporary films and snapshots. According to Sobchack, such a melting of the dimensions of time means that the "event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation have moved increasingly toward simultaneity"(5). She even points out that each and every individual is an active participant in the histories (because The History - as we have all been aware since Hayden White's Metahistory - does not exist) he is involved in due to simultaneity, and for those, in consequence, he is responsible, since they seriously affect his life-narrative.

More or less this is exactly what the aforementioned Hayden White, the father of the so-called post-modern historiography, focuses on. According to him, twentieth-century modern historical research has sufficiently proved that it is possible to work without historical (narrative technical) entities, such as the character and the plot, "but the dissolution of the event as a basic unit of temporal occurrence and building-block of history undermines the very concept of factuality and threatens therewith the distinction between realistic and merely imaginary discourse"(6). It is so, since placing the two discourses on the same ontological basis results in that "the referential function of the images of events is etiolated"(7). If referenciality is endangered, the factuality of the document (and not the reality of the event) and its evidence quality will be questioned. Returning to Major Arnold's judgement, we can see that even the evidence he believes incontrovertible is not necessarily so - especially owing to the technical reasons behind film as a representational mechanism. This, however, does not mean that the horrors did not take place: on the contrary, questioning referenciality signals that the real event has such a traumatic power that it numbs any language, thus erecting a dam before every reasonable explanation (8).

With the digitally manipulated archive materials, according to Thomas Elsaesser, history arrived at a kind of "conceptual twilight zone", where the constant interaction of memory (both individual and collective) and event shapes small letter histories (9). Elsaesser believes that today "no longer is storytelling the culture's meaning-making response," to certain traumatic events, since "an activity closer to therapeutic practice has taken over" this role "with acts of re-telling, re-membering, and repeating all pointing in the direction of obsession, fantasy, trauma" (10). This attempt to work through, and Taking Sides is an excellent example for it, is an attempt "at exorcism without promise of redemption"(11). Major Arnold of Taking Sides was indeed preparing for exorcism, but Szabó does not give him or anybody else the chance of absolution and redemption. As if he sent the message that everybody was responsible for their own story and history, in which they are implied, and which they tell themselves and others.

Referring to Mephisto, Szabó again poses the questions: what is the relationship between power and art? To what extent is an artist political (or politician) and can anybody be an artist deprived of his tools? What is a conductor worth without his orchestra? In Mephisto, Hendrik Höfgen's life and talent, which he had always wanted to sacrifice on the altar of art, was ruined after power infected him. Power raised him, sucked out his blood, then made him disappear from the scene. Furtwängler's situation is not that unambiguous (of course, Höfgen's story is not a simple story either). However hard the major wants to sentence him, in fact he only manages to illuminate how obscene it was of the Nazi regime to conceal the energy he invested into destruction by showing the mask of entertainment, arts and glamour (12).

It might be true that Furtwängler "painted the most beautiful picture" of the Nazis, as Arnold remarks cynically (and something similar is said of Höfgen at one point), and it might also be true that the Bruckner symphony he conducted was played on the radio after Hitlers death, but apparently he stumbles at exactly the same place on leaving the office where at the beginning of the film the young lieutenant did on entering the office, and - also with the intervention of the lieutenant - on Berlin's streets the same Bruckner echoes and rumbles, as the conductor passes the horse statue the restoration of which began early in the movie and is now completed. Stepping out to the street, he hears that his Berlin echoes the music, the Berlin he stayed for, the city for which he had undertaken all the slandering. This Berlin is now wrapped around by his music, while rebuilding commences.


(1) Bar-On, Dan. The Indescribable and the Undiscussable. Budapest: CEU Press, 1999, p. 158.

(2) The meaning can be concluded from the elements of words: crypt = tomb, grave; amnesia = difficulty to remember, the lack of ability to remember. So the word describes a phenomenon when an experience/a word/a feeling/a situation is repressed so that it does not return on the level of symptoms, since apart from forgetting, it is also surrounded by a protective wall. Any recollection becomes impossible. The expression itself was invented by Théodore Flournoy in 1894.

(3) Abraham, Nicolas and Torok, Maria. The Shell and the Kernel. Vol. 1. (Translated and the introductions written by Nicholas T. Rand) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994. In this collection of essays, Abraham and Torok, relying on their psychoanalytic experience, work out a theory for the examination and treatment of transgenerational traumas. The description of the formation and the operation of the phantom was created by Abraham, who in his "Notes on the Phantom: A Complement to Freud's Metapsychology" expresses his theory of the transgenerational phantom (pp. 171-176).

4) Sobchack, Vivian. "History Happens", introduction to the book she edited: The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 3.

(5) Id. the book, p. 5.

(6) White, Hayden. "The Modernist Event," in Sobchack, Vivian (editor). The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event, p. 18.

(7) Ibid., p. 19.

(8) Ibid., p. 30.

(9) Elsaesser, Thomas. "Subject Positions, Speaking Positions," in Sobchack, Vivian (editor). The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event, p. 145.

Translated by Adrea Danyi

Translation revised by Zoltán Dragon

Stellan Skarsgard
Stellan Skarsgard
84 KByte
Harvey Keitel
Harvey Keitel
76 KByte
Moritz Bleibtreu
Moritz Bleibtreu
76 KByte
Birgit Minichmayr, Moritz Bleibtreu
Birgit Minichmayr,
Moritz Bleibtreu
75 KByte

90 KByte


News News Films Films Profiles Profiles Essays Essays Reviews Reviews Örökmozgó Örökmozgó Gallery Gallery Who's Who's Moving Picture Gallery Links Repertorium Letters FILMKULTÚRA from '96 Contents Main Page Search