I found this film about the pre-trial interrogation of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich, both disturbing and compelling. My discomfort arose from the one-sided nature of the interrogation, since Major Arnold (Harvey Keitel) has been given the mandate of securing a conviction against Furtwaengler by any means including humiliation. The Major is both a zealot and a bully who makes no effort to see the dilemma of the great maestro--whom he dismisses as a "bandleader,"--who has chosen to remain in Germany and has been forced to walk a "tightrope" in order to co-exist with and survive an intolerable regime. The Major, a philistine who has no understanding of the conflict between art and politics, furthermore, does not even speak the same language, figuratively speaking, as the shattered Furtwaengler. His interrogation methods, in fact, are recognized by Emmi, his jobbed-in German Secretary, as being reminiscent of those of the Gestapo.
The acting is superb, especially on the part of Stellan Skarsgard, whose nuanced portrayal of Furtwaengler is tremendously moving. Although Keitel's performance begins on such a high note that it has no place to go, it is nevertheless appropriate given the circumstances of his task of getting a conviction at any cost. Under director Istvan Szabo's guidance, however, the temptation to "take sides" with Furtwaengler, because of the Major's bullying, is subtly subverted by questions of conscience and motivation on the part of the maestro.
The recreation of post-war Berlin is superb. Two outstanding scenes take place at concerts: the first, of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, at a baroque church in the last days of the war, as allied bombers drop their payloads on Berlin; and the second, of the adagio of the Schubert string quintet, at the ruins of the same church, which has been bombed out. In the middle of the performance of the latter, the rain pours in and the black umbrellas go up, and no one thinks of leaving. The choice of music is emblematic: Beethoven with it's beat ( . . . -) [ V for Victory, for those too young to remember] accompanies the defeat of the Third Reich, while the sublime Schubert adagio offers consolation to the Berliners who are left to live with the consequences of that demented regime.
One of the aspects of this film that I liked the best is that it asks difficult questions of the viewer, but provides no answers--perhaps because there are none.