|Interview with Stellan - May 9,
Artists and Evil
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
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