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Nazi Party Favors

Battle Lines Get Blurred in Everyman's Taking Sides

Heil Storm: Kyle Prue (Left) And Stan Weiman Fight About Favoritism, Allegiance, and Moral Fuzziness.

By Jack Purdy | Posted 9/25/2002

Taking Sides

Ronald Harwood

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Allies put defeated Germany through a cleansing process with the ungainly name of "denazification." Basically, it meant that prominent Germans who were found to have supported or colluded with the Nazis, even if not enthusiastic members of the party, could be barred from public life to purge the National Socialist infection from the German body politic. But how do you judge support and collusion when any opposition to Hitler's regime, even to be heard telling an anti-Nazi joke, might have earned the jokester a one-way ticket to Treblinka?

That's the question at the center of Taking Sides, the engrossing and enigmatic play by South Africa-born writer Ronald Harwood, best known for his play/screenplay The Dresser, which received multiple Oscar nominations in 1983. The man doing the judging in Taking Sides is Major Arnold (Kyle Prue), a cynical, foul-mouthed, and proudly uncultured guy driven by the memory of what he saw while liberating the concentration camps. Arnold's prior civilian occupation as an insurance claims investigator makes him well suited to ferreting out lies of the "But I was never a Nazi" variety.

The man Major Arnold wants to get is a true historical figure, Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stan Weiman), a demigod in the world of classical music who conducted both the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. Furtwangler, desperate to work again, claims he kept conducting in Germany only to keep culture and beauty alive, because music is a mystical force, etc., etc. And it is a matter of public record that Furtwangler helped many individual Jewish musicians to get out--including the woman who had been his private secretary. He stops short of saying, "My best friends were Jews," but that's definitely what he wants Major Arnold to think.

The battle between the two, which takes place in two lengthy interrogations, is a war between an intellectual who couldn't see the world as it really was and a philistine who has seen too much of people as they really are. As Arnold bores in on Furtwangler's true motivations, he is hamstrung by his own assistants, Emmi Straub (Megan Anderson) and Lieutenant Wills (John Michael MacDonald), who are both dazzled by Furtwangler's celebrity and intellect. (And, yes, there was a time both here and abroad when orchestral conductors were Brad Pitt-level celebs.) Emmi and the lieutenant see the conductor as a great man caught in history's worst cataclysm. But Major Arnold sees the "Devil's Music Maker" and, to make the case, he makes a deal with a minor imp, Helmuth Rode (Steven Cupo), a former violinist under Furtwangler who provides evidence of the conductor's guilt in return for a job with the American army.

It's this deal that gives Taking Sides its enigmatic richness. Rode was probably a Nazi party member. Yet Arnold deals with him in order to nail a man who never belonged to the party--and the major isn't squeamish about the validity of Rode's evidence. It's a real moral compromise, but Arnold, so determined to nail Furtwangler, is willing to use tactics a Nazi jurist might find familiar.

Still, Major Arnold's desire for vengeance is understandable. In a real sense, Furtwangler's actions are less comprehensible than those of Adolf Hitler, who was motivated by a bone-deep hatred of the "inferior races." Wilhelm Furtwangler remained in Germany and lent his international prestige to the regime because he was a star, and Hitler (a major classical-music buff) regarded him as the Reich's greatest conductor.

In short, Furtwangler had a good, steady gig. And we all know how hard those are to get.

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