In terms of his direct contribution to cinema, Wilhelm Furtwängler was limited to a single feature film, Paul Czinner's 1954 screen version of Don Giovanni, which was shot in conjunction with the Salzburg Festival production of the Mozart opera; Furtwängler conducted the music for the film, and is seen briefly in the movie. But his contribution as a dramatic subject was more significant and unusual, and grew out of his extraordinary place in the music world. In music, Wilhelm Furtwängler was a giant many times over, one of the most renowned conductors of the 20th century, and the most honored and revered conductor in the German-speaking world from the mid-'20s until his death in 1954. He'd originally entered music with the intention of being a composer, but the death of his father and the need to support his family forced him to concentrate on the more financially reliable field of conducting, where his talent and his ability to mold music and orchestras ended up giving Furtwängler an importance that extended far beyond the podium. He was fully a part of the German intelligentsia, educated and sophisticated, a model of measured maturity at the podium that made him the perfect Teutonic answer to the other most renowned conductor of the mid-20th century, the Italian Arturo Toscanini. While Toscanini was the tempestuous showman, Furtwängler was the Germanic mystic, an almost spiritual figure. But it is as a dramatic figure in history that Furtwängler occupies a unique position among musicians, which formed the basis for his biggest indirect contribution to theater and cinema. Other conductors made appearances in feature films: although no actor, Leopold Stokowski was enough of a showman and self-promoter to happily appear as himself, in a few short scenes, in the Deanna Durbin vehicle 100 Men and a Girl, and he was very much a "presence" in Disney's Fantasia; Walter Damrosch, Bruno Walter, and Fritz Reiner show up, in varying degrees of prominence, in Edgar G. Ulmer's Carnegie Hall; and Sir Thomas Beecham made an appearance in one shot of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann, the score of which he conducted. There have also been cinematic instances of conductors being dramatized or burlesqued in veiled form; the character portrayed by Rex Harrison in Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours was based on Beecham. But Furtwängler is the only conductor whose place in history has proved sufficient to make him the subject of plays and films -- thus elevating him to the rarefied stature enjoyed by Mozart and Salieri.
Starting in 1933, when the Nazi Party began its takeover of political and cultural life in Germany, Furtwängler used his prominence -- and the fact that the Nazi government needed him in a prominent musical position to retain its own credibility as a cultural force -- to prevent them from taking total control of German musical life. He worked quietly (and, occasionally, publicly, where Paul Hindemith's music was concerned), protesting and resisting the edicts of the government, giving professional shelter to musicians of part-Jewish descent (who would normally have lost their jobs), and even -- as was later discovered -- helping those in jeopardy escape to Switzerland. Following Germany's takeover of Austria in 1938, he performed a similar function there as well, preventing the Vienna Philharmonic from being used in the political service of the occupying government, until he came under suspicion of the Gestapo and was forced to flee to Switzerland himself. To outside onlookers, Furtwängler's resistance proved easily mistaken for acquiescence to the Nazis, a charge that took him nearly two years to disprove. The stage drama Taking Sides, written by Ronald Harwood, was based on this conflict over Furtwängler's life and career from 1933 through 1945, and enjoyed a long run in London and a lesser but still successful run in New York during the late '90s, with Daniel Massey playing Furtwängler. It was brought to the screen in 2001 by István Szabó, with Stellan Skarsgård as the legendary conductor and Harvey Keitel as his antagonist, a U.S. army officer out to convict Furtwängler of complicity with the Nazis. The very existence of the play and the movie speak volumes about Furtwängler's unique and special place in history, and for those desiring a glimpse of the man himself and some of his best work, there is the Czinner movie (available marketed as an opera performance from Deutsche Grammophon on DVD).