Set in Germany during the denazification processes following World War Two, Ronald Harwood’s Taking Sides
(1995 play, 2001 film) pits German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler against a relatively uncultured American interrogator, Steve Arnold, to, as Harwood says, examine the role of an artist under a totalitarian state and an American’s mistreatment of the world-renowned maestro. While there is certainly a contrast between the old world, represented by the classical music of Furtwängler, and the new, represented by Arnold’s affinity for jazz, there is much more at stake in both the play and the film. As the interrogation progresses, Arnold, who worked as an insurance claims adjuster during his civilian days, senses Furtwängler’s arguments about art as apolitical, are what he calls “airy-fairy” excuses. Arnold knows Hitler favored Furtwängler, used his music to inspire his atrocities, and gave Furtwangler access to almost anything he wanted. Critics frequently praise the play and film for its balanced presentation of the two sides. However, by examining the play and the film in terms of Aristotelian tragedy, this essay makes clear that Furtwängler’s refusal to take sides has grave consequences, consequences that only the crude, “ugly American” Arnold is willing to discuss.
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