In May 2002, while some Jewish activists were inciting Hollywood regulars to boycott the Cannes Film Festival as a protest against a wave of antisemitism in France, screenwriter and playwright Ronald Harwood was attending the world’s most celebrated film festival for his movie’s premiere. “This is the perfect time for a film on the Holocaust,” he asserted about “The Pianist,” the film he penned based on a survivor’s memoir. When it was awarded Cannes’s top prize, the Camera d’Or, some wags said the honor was bestowed to compensate for the antisemitic violence. But Harwood paid no attention to such talk. Success was at hand. An American distributor was secured by Cannes’s close. The rest — counting five Academy Awards, including one for Harwood’s screenplay — is, as they say, history.
Such was not the fate of another film Harwood wrote in 2000, the same year he scripted “The Pianist.” Based on his own play and directed by the Academy Award-winning Hungarian István Szabó, “Taking Sides” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12, 2001, postponed to that date because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “It wasn’t the best day, I’m afraid,” said Harwood wryly, in an interview with the Forward from his home in London. Set in post-Holocaust Berlin, “Taking Sides” tells the true story of the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the Third Reich, Wilhelm Furtwängler (played by Stellan Skarsgård), who was later investigated by the American De-Nazification Committee. Ron Harwood created a fictional character, Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), who is determined to bring “Hitler’s bandleader” to justice. The film has been shown in France and Germany to good reviews. But unlike plans for “The Pianist,” American distribution for “Taking Sides” was long in coming.
That is, until now. Today, the film will finally open in New York, distributed by New Yorker Films.
One could say that the play “Taking Sides” spawned both its own film version as well as “The Pianist.” After attending a Paris performance, Roman Polanski invited Harwood to write a screenplay for “The Pianist.” “Roman thought, ‘Taking Sides’ is about music and the Nazis; perhaps this man will be right for ‘The Pianist’ which is also about music and the Nazis,” explained Harwood.
Harwood’s father escaped pogroms in Lithuania at the turn of the century. His family was not directly affected by the Holocaust. Nevertheless, “When I was 12 in 1946, the Jewish children were taken to see the films of Belsen and Auschwitz and that scarred me, has haunted me all my life,” said Harwood, who was born in Capetown, South Africa in 1934. He immigrated to London in 1951 and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he studied to be an actor. Instead, he became a writer in 1960, when he wrote a novel about South Africa and then several plays for television and film. International success came in 1980 when he wrote the play, “The Dresser.” The story of a touring Shakespearean actor during World War II and the man who cared for him, “The Dresser” was later made into a film with Albert Finney, directed by Peter Yates, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for best adapted screenplay.
For “Taking Sides,” Harwood was intrigued by a book describing Furtwängler’s dilemma: Furtwängler claimed he was first and foremost an artist and was not interested in politics. How is that possible? Can you divorce art from politics? These were the main issues of the artist in a totalitarian society.
In the film, Furtwängler pulls for viewers’ sympathy, as well as that of the other characters. The crusading Arnold’s young assistants — one the son of murdered parents, the other a daughter of a “hero” who was executed for plotting against Hitler — are swayed by the conductor’s artistic brilliance and charisma and repulsed by their boss’s churlish manner. But Arnold is resolute, bold and unrelenting. In the end, the viewer is forced to take sides while wondering about Furtwängler’s offscreen fellow artists, most famously Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker.
“‘Taking Sides’ gives people a kick,” said Harwood. “First I wanted the question to be asked, how would I behave if I were in Furtwängler’s position, if the head of state had phoned me and said you’re my favorite conductor? Would I have said, ‘Well I’m not having anything to do with you?’ Then again, [Furtwängler] saved a lot of Jews, but he only saved Jews who were musicians and were talented. Defending himself, Furtwängler says, who knew what they were capable of doing?”
“That’s the heart of the matter,” continued Harwood, his voice rising passionately. “Did they not know or did they shut their eyes? I put another line in the movie: Why did the Jews need saving if he didn’t know what was going on?”
When the play was performed in New York, with Ed Harris as the American interrogator, the audience was “very sensitive, finding Arnold brutal and vulgar,” as Harwood put it. “The terrible thing is we are all such snobs. We think you have to be cultured to be moral. And you don’t. You can be vulgar and be super-moral. I think the American is an amazing fellow: persistent, moral. His problem is he doesn’t know about classical music; people find that upsetting. But the American is the only one in ‘Taking Sides’ who talks about the dead. All the others talk about art, music and culture. Yes, he could so easily walk away letting Furtwängler off. Yes, but he has seen the dead at Belsen. He smelt the burning flesh, and it has marked him.”
“Taking Sides,” while a more didactic film than “The Pianist,” is more cutting edge in its demanding stance on moral issues. Indeed, Harwood has made a career of his commitment to moral issues. As president of the International Pen Club from 1993 to 1997, he worked to combat censorship and violations of human rights. And the Holocaust remains a persistent theme in his work. But what makes a story work for him is, as he said in his Oscar acceptance speech, objectivity. Wladyslaw Szpilman of “The Pianist” was not a “hero,” but simply a man who survived. “This is what I love,” Harwood said. “What I liked about Furtwängler’s story was it was entirely gray. No black and white about it. That’s pretty much my area. We are so indoctrinated with heroic and villainous figures. We are told what to think at the end of a movie, play or book. I don’t like that. I have great respect for audiences, all capable of making up their minds.”