Video Virgil: Deep Grey
Are the American occupation forces in Afghanistan and Iraq heroes or villains? The world is full of righteous souls who know the answer and will brook no argument. But to anyone who reflects on what those forces have been asked to do, the answer looks grey.
That is why, when the time comes to make a meaningful film about America's war on terror, I nominate a South African, Ronald Harwood, to write the screenplay, and a Hungarian, István Szabó, to direct. Harwood's credits include "The Pianist" (2002), "Cry, the Beloved Country" (1995), "The Browning Version" (1994), "The Dresser" (1983), and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970); while Szabó's include "Sunshine" (1999) and "Mephisto" (1981).
Harwood and Szabó recently collaborated on "Being Julia" (2004), about an aging actress in 1930s London. But more pertinent to today's distressing headlines is "Taking Sides" (2001), a remarkable film about the interrogation of the eminent German conductor, Wilhelm Fürtwangler, by U.S. occupation authorities right after the war.
Set amid the rubble of bombed-out Berlin, "Taking Sides" stars Stellan Skarsgård as Fürtwangler, a proud, weary highbrow who served but also defied the Nazi regime; and Harvey Keitel as Major Steve Arnold, an edgy, aggressive lowbrow who takes very much to heart the de-nazification directive not to be fooled by German charm or intelligence.
Already you can see the difference between "Taking Sides" and the long line of Hollywood flicks stretching back to "Judgment at Nuremberg." In most of those films, the victorious Yanks have all the advantages, not just the obvious moral one but civilizational ones, as well. With the possible exception of Jimmy Cagney hamming it up as a Coca-Cola carpetbagger in Billy Wilder's hilarious "One, Two, Three" (1961), victorious Yanks in Hollywood movies tend to be just as cultivated as the Germans, only much nicer about it.
Not Major Arnold. He doesn't know Beethoven from Brückner, and he could give a flying fig. What he cares about is screwing any sonofabitch who played footsie with the bastards responsible for Bergen-Belsen. He is a combination rare in the movies: a crude bully who also happens to be right. And the only reason we applaud his bullying is because it is in service to a political system that (most of the time) places curbs on the freedom of bullies. By making the victor a worse man than the vanquished, this film achieves a tragic sense that is unusual, to say the least, in this genre.
The tragic sense is heightened by terrific performances by two young actors playing Major Arnold's assistants: Birgit Minichmayr as Emmi Straube, the daughter of one of the officers who plotted to kill Hitler; and Moritz Bleibtreu as Lt. David Wills, a German-born Jew whose parents sent him to America just before the rest of the family were engulfed. Although "Taking Sides" errs in not emphasizing fully the evidence that led to Fürtwangler's eventual acquittal, it more than makes up for that by revealing the deep grey depths where justice is never more than an approximation.