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SZABÓ, ISTVÁN: TAKING SIDES

ART AND DICTATORSHIP
Taking Sides explores how artists cope with living in a dictatorship that is anathema to art itself, renowned Hungarian director István Szabó tells Andrew L. Urban, a subject of eternal fascination for the filmmaker, who is familiar with the subject first hand.


Taking Sides is the first film directed by Oscar winning filmmaker István Szabó that was not written by him, but it tackles a subject that has fascinated the renowned Hungarian filmmaker for years: what do artists do when encased in a totalitarian regime? How do they behave? Do they compromise? Do they stay? Do they leave? Do they confront the regime that denies all the humanity that art stands for - and hang for it?

"a greater responsibility"

“Films of mine like Colonel Redl, Hanussen, Mephisto and Sunshine also touch on this subject,” he says in a phone conversation while he is in Paris. “It’s a major issue…how do artists deal with it? And how do you judge them? And of course these people have a greater responsibility because other people look to them as an example…”

At least they do in Europe; sportsmen/women are hugely admired, of course, but they don’t have quite the same aura. Szabó (born 1938) himself has experienced the dilemma, having grown up in a country that lurched from one political extreme to another, and endured the communist dictatorship of the postwar years. 

German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård), arguably the most distinguished conductor of his generation, is forced to face the American Denazification Committee in post-war Germany, interrogated by Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel). Although he is acquitted of all charges, his name remains tainted by his association with the Nazis. 

Englishman Ronald Harwood wrote the stage play and worked with Szabó on the screenplay adaptation, a process Szabó enjoyed immensely. “I loved the stage play,” he says, “but it’s a two hander which isn’t ideal as a film. So we worked together to open it up, to add new characters and so on. I loved working with Ronnie Harwood so much I hope I will have the opportunity to do it again.”

It was producer Yves Pasquier who first made a phone call to Szabó, suggesting Taking Sides as a movie and asking what Szabó thought. Szabó had seen the play and responded to the idea. “There are great challenges here,” he says. “In filming the story, both sides of the argument must seem valid, otherwise we end up with a monotonous story in which we know within the first 10 minutes on whose side we stand.” 

For Szabó, the crucial issue was casting: he chose Harvey Keitel as the American, Major Arnold, and Stellan Skarsgård as the German conductor, Furtwangler. “Their acting styles are very different,” says Szabó. “Harvey Keitel is a great method actor, while Stellan comes from European theatrical traditions. The difference is enormous but we’re happy to have had them work together because it became like a fantastic seminar. It’s like priests from two different religions…”

" the real power of the motion picture"

For Szabó, Taking Sides is an opportunity to emphasise what he regards as the real power of the motion picture: “the greatest value of film is the close up – here we can put how emotions are born and changed in front of an audience like in no other artform. That is its power.” 

Published October 24, 2002

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