Politics of art
Istvan Szabo's "Taking Sides" focuses on personal responsibility for action and inaction even in the most trying, confusing times. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN talks to the Hungarian filmmaker.
Istvan Szabo ...stark simplicity.
"If you decide to be a whore, you cannot start to cry if you have to make love for money."
THIS is how acclaimed Hungarian filmmaker Istvan Szabo once described the problems of complicity and compromise in which our age specialises. Neutrality can be cowardice disguised. Ignorance is no way out. After his 20-year prison sentence, didn't Albert Speer from Hitler's Ministry of War admit that he was guilty, precisely for knowing nothing about concentration camps?
Szabo's "Taking Sides" (based on Ronald Harwood's chilling play) with which the Mumbai Film Festival 2002 opened, focuses on personal responsibility for action and inaction even in the most trying, confusing times. Wilhelm Furtwangler, believed to be the world's greatest music conductor, certainly Hitler's favourite, opts to stay in his fatherland during the Nazi regime. He refuses to shake Hitler's hand, but conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on the eve of the Nuremberg rally. He helps many Jewish musicians to escape, but is close to the top Nazi officials, makes anti-Semitic quips. His arrogance, egoism and desperate need for womanising, are as well known as his genius.
In the post-war de-Nazification programme of the Allies, a ruthless Major Steve Arnold interrogates Furtwangler. The Major's assistant Emmi, herself a concentration camp victim, denounces the American methods as no different from those of the Gestapo. Furtwangler is shattered by the viciousness of the attack, and by being forced to confront his weakness in wilfully blinding himself to the holocaust. (We remember how Dante's "Divine Comedy" reserves its worst hell fires for ditherers who, in their earthly life, had abstained from taking sides for either good or evil).
"This is not a German issue," Szabo clarifies. "Today everybody is fighting on a daily basis for a certain `safeness' (but) you have to ask moral questions: What are good compromises, what are bad ones, what compromises are deadly."
The film raises fundamental issues of art and politics. The major's other Jewish aide remonstrates that the grilling humiliates a great artiste ("Show me one person who hasn't made anti-Semitic remarks and I'll show you the gates of Paradise."). At one point Furtwangler declares passionately, that he had served liberty and justice in the pursuit of art; genocides shall be forgotten while Beethoven shall be remembered. You hear the major scream (against the visuals of machines shovelling human corpses into the Auschwitz pits), "Have you seen gas chambers? Smelt burning bodies four miles away?" We recall also Szabo's belief that politics is life and separated from politics, art becomes lifeless.
The film induces its own claustrophobia first by the sets (an echoing hall in the Berlin of dust-and-rubble for interrogations; a roofless shell of a church for a concert, audiences under umbrellas in the rain; the subdued marketplace where the "saviours" (Allied soldiers) feel thoroughly alien among the "native" Germans. The philistinism of the Yankee interrogator suffocates as much as the victim's asphyxiation under his probe. Brilliant acting, with top honours to Stellan Skarsgard (Furtwangler) and Harvey Keitel (Arnold), reveals people in just those shadows when they want to be unobserved. Through the lens we observe two phases of ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue in the auteur, and as a moral weakness in the characters.
"Taking Sides" is a remarkable chronicle, though Szabo fans may cite his earlier Ralph Fiennes starring "Sunshine", or Oscar winner "Mephisto" as better films. The filmmaker adopts a stark simplicity to frame complex international dilemmas relevant to the post 9/11 age.
At the Open Forum discussion in the Mumbai film festival, Szabo explained how he was born (1938) into a kingdom, grew up in a Fascist nation, a post-war democracy interlude, Stalinist regime, revolution, dictatorship, and democracy again. "The streets of Budapest changed names with every regime. So, without moving from my flat, I have had seven or eight addresses."
Some things did not change through the East European power shifts. "We don't know what will happen tomorrow. We just want to survive through this day." Secondly, whether democratic or totalitarian, every group sought to establish domination over the others.
"The only thing you can do is tell stories," he continued. "I am not a village priest or elementary school teacher. I have to ask questions and the audience must learn something from the questions. As a film maker I make a hundred compromises each day. The question is how far can I go? Where is the border? How can I save what I want to save?"
Szabo himself had faced Furtwangler's problem. He did not leave Hungary during the Communist regime but critiqued it in his work. "Don't think I was courageous," he added wryly. "Intellectuals and artistes were allowed, even funded, to criticise the government, so that the rulers would appear liberal to the world."
"I blame you for your cowardice, for not getting hanged," the Major says to Furtwangler. So how can individuals redeem themselves in their own eyes? Take a stand against evil? Accept personal responsibility for the moral collapse around them? Not betray values?
No solutions. Szabo simply makes the protagonist crumple up under the questioning. With a film as gut wrenching as "Taking Sides'', does he have to do more?
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