Starring Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Moritz Bleibtreu, Birgit Minichmayr, Ulrich Tukur, Oleg Tabakov.
Academy Award winning director István Szabó (Sunshine, 1999; Meeting Venus 1991; Mephisto 1981) once again delves into a subject which concerns him deeply – that of the relationship between art and authenticity, with particular reference here to the persecution of Jews in wartime Germany, and the difficult situation of German musicians favoured by Hitler such as famed classical conductor Dr Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Shortly after the end of WW II, Dr Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) stands accused of sympathising with the Nazis. Assigned to find grounds to connect him to the Nazi Party is Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel), an American former insurance salesman who relishes his General’s off-the-record advice to pay this great artist and musician no respect whatsoever. The major is given two assistants: Lt David Wills (Moritz Bleibtreu), a German Jew whose family escaped before the Holocaust, and a secretary Emmi Straube (Birgit Minichmayr) whose father was among those who plotted to assassinate Hitler. The film deals with the investigation into Furtwängler and explores issues around artistic sensibility and pride. It deals with the opposing aims of politics and materiality against art and spirituality.
Following Arnold’s briefing on his mission the film opens with a flashback to the magnificent Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony conducted by Furtwängler in an ornate Concert Hall. Bombs are heard dropping in the distance, air raid sirens wail and a huge spotlight scans the leadlight windows. The orchestra is unsettled, though Furtwängler, intense in his concentration, appears not in the least disturbed. In the power failure and black-out that immediately follows, a Gestapo official respectfully approaches Furtwängler in his room. Obviously a music-lover, the official compliments him, saying that even though in these times “we have need of spiritual nourishment”, the conductor looks tired and perhaps could do with a rest, a trip away, out of Germany. Furtwängler is stonily polite but looks resistant to this advice and its subtext.
In the next scene we see Major Steve Arnold setting up his office in which his investigation will take place. Despite his irreverence for military discipline and protocol, his airy statement that Emmi will call him Steve is ignored. She, for one, will call him Major, keeping boundaries that Arnold will later accuse Furtwängler of crossing with the Nazis. Throughout the film Keitel’s Major Arnold is portrayed most repellently as a philistine whose arrogance is only matched by his ignorance. He delights in calling Furtwängler a ‘band-leader’, in keeping him needlessly waiting, and showing him petty rudeness designed to unsettle the great man’s pride and composure.
In his interviews with the orchestra members he uncovers an apparent solidarity and reverence for their conductor to which Arnold can only respond by laying bets with Lt Wills as to how soon the ‘baton story’ – in which Furtwängler refused to give the Nazi salute to Hitler, holding his baton instead - will come up. His staff uncovers some information linking the timpanist to the Communist party and possible grounds for blackmail by an art archivist named Hinkel. The stage is set for betrayal and Arnold uses no restraint on manipulative tricks and emotional mind-games in an attempt to twist Furtwängler’s testimony into self-incrimination.
One by one Furtwängler’s assertions that politics should be separate to art, that it is the duty of an artist to stay and fight from the inside, and that music has a purpose to maintain liberty, humanity and justice, are countered by Arnold’s cynicism and references to the Nazis’ love of the music Furtwängler conducted. Superficial discrepancies are highlighted while underlying spiritual values are ignored in Arnold’s increasingly fascist quest to ‘get the bandleader’, accusing him of enjoying the perks of his artistic status and of professional jealousy towards rivals. The intent is not solely to convict him of Nazi sympathies, we feel, but also to cut down to size a great artist, whose spiritual depths Arnold cannot conceive of, let alone reach.
In the meantime, while swapping amusing stories about their German upbringing, Emmi and Lt Wills develop a rapport made stronger by their escalating distaste for Arnold and his methods. In a fascinating parallel to the very situation in which Furtwängler found himself with a regime he detested, Emmi decides she has had enough. “I have been questioned by the Gestapo just like you questioned him!” she says in distress, before leaving. Wills persuades her to return and they both become more openly subversive in line with a personal authenticity they will not compromise. Similar echoes are heard in Furtwängler’s speech to Arnold, “The trouble with you Americans is you want everybody to live like you!” and when Furtwängler points out, “I walked a tightrope between exile and the gallows. You seem to be accusing me of not allowing myself to be hanged!” Arnold calmly agrees, then plays on his survivor guilt. Furtwängler maintains for the most part the same restrained hostility to Arnold that he had to the Gestapo. Szabó’s penchant for echoes full of pregnant pathos includes a moving scene with Furtwängler in the audience of a concert held in a bombed out cathedral, and a discovery by Wills that the archivist Hinkel ironically appropriated a synagogue in which to keep his records.
The film is a rich experience of the divergent motivations of art and materiality. Though there are flaws – the predominant staginess of the dialectical proceedings within the investigation room and Keitel’s simplistic portrayal of soulless materiality, for example – the performances of Skarsgård, Bleibtreu and Minichmayr are deeply textured and satisfying. The point that the forces of justice can be just as oppressive and humanly weak as that which they seek to punish, is well made. And the wonderful music, of course, rings in the ears long after the end of the movie.
© Avril Carruthers 15th December, 2002
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