Interview with Stellan - May 9, 2003

Artists and Evil

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In Istvan Szabo's Movie "Taking Sides" which opens today in the New York area , the Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård plays Wilhelm Furtwängler, the conductor who led the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich.

"I wasn't familiar with Furtwängler when I was asked to be in the film," Mr. Skarsgård recalled by phone from Ireland, where he is filming a new version of "King Arthur" produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. "I had heard him, but when I listen to classical music, I'm not so much into it that I really think of who's conducting at the moment."

For Mr. Skarsgård, the crux of "Taking Sides" was not the music (though plenty is heard in the film), but the moral issues that face an artist in evil times. "The script deals with the matters he always deals with," Mr. Skarsgård said, referring to past films by Mr. Szabo, including "Mephisto"(1981) and "Colonel Redl" (1985). "The moral complications of living in a society you don't approve of."

The film, set in the immediate aftermath of the war, depicts a confrontation between Harvey Keitel, as an American officer charged with bringing the Nazis' cultural collaborators to justice, and Mr. Skarsgård, whose reserved portrayal of Furtwängler avoids passing overt judgment on his guilt or innocence.

"My research was mainly on the period," said Mr. Skarsgård, citing Gitta Sereny's book "Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth" as a particularly valuable resource. "We have to remember that Nazism, when it came, was a youthful and popular movement. There was a little fine print about the Jews, but at that point, nobody cared. And people all over the world were hailing the Nazis, at least up until the war started. So it was very easy to be seduced by it."

"But I don't think Furtwängler was seduced," Mr. Skarsgård theorized. "I think he made the mistake of trying to stay above politics, which I think you can't do."

In the film, Furtwängler's position boils down to a single, romantic idea: that if art can transform people's souls, it was his duty to stay in Germany and try to transform his fellow Germans. Does Mr. Skarsgård believe art has that power?

"No, I don't think so," Mr.Skarsgård said. "But what art can do for the viewer of a film, the spectator of a play or the reader of a book is give this person the possibility of seeing reality with someone else's eyes.

"And of course it can put questions into your head. When I saw "Mephisto", I was in shock."

"I couldn't swear to what I would have done if I had been in Gustav Grundgens's shoes at that time, and that scared me," added Mr. Skarsgård, referring to the German actor upon whom "Mephisto" was based. "I've been carrying that around since then, and it made me aware of my own weightlessness, and how easy it is to get into a situation where compromise turns into sellout."

Mr. Skarsgård said he came away from "Taking Sides" with only one definite conclusion: "You cannot be apolitical, as Furtwängler tried to be. Because that means you are supporting the most powerful at the moment. If you're a member of society, you have responsibility for that society. You have it as an artist; you have it as a gardener."

[NY Times]