Furtwangler's chief antagonist is Major Steve Arnold (ably played by Harvey Keitel), an insurance fraud investigator in civilian life, who has been given unambigous orders by his superior to "get" Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgard). The character of Arnold seems taken from the stories of Dashiell Hammett, complete with an arsenal of "third degree" interrogation tactics, including turning off the fans in a hot room when his target is present. He represents the "typical" American viewpoint of the period, which is deprecatory toward "culture"—especially German culture—and of the opinion that almost all Germans share the Nazi guilt. He is assigned a German secretary, Emmi, who is considered a "good" German since her father was executed for plotting against Hitler's life, and she herself survived interrogation and imprisonment as a result. His other co-worker is Lt. David Wills, a Jew who was sent to America as a child by parents who did not escape, and who is now assigned to the cultural preservation commission.
Furtwangler, on the other hand, seems to have found himself in a Kafka story as he is made to wait pointlessly, and questioned harshly about inconsequential topics.
The great value of this piece is in the study of the characters. Arnold sinks into cruelty in response to his many frustrations: his case against Furtwangler goes nowhere; he is under increasing pressure from other occupation authorities to clear the conductor; and his advances to the attractive Emmi are turned down in favor of the young lieutnenant. Furtwangler flounders under his attack, until Emmi cannot take it any longer, and tells Arnold his tactics are those of the Gestapo. Wills gets her to return, telling her she "may be able to have a positive influence," (ironically, of course, one of the same reasons Furtwangler stayed in Germany). The two young people gang up against Arnold to protest the unfairness, Wills bringing out evidence in Furtwanger's favor, and Emmi debunking her father's martyr status, admitting he was a loyal officer who only turned against Hitler when it obvious the war was lost. Excellent performances by all, including Moritz Bleibtreu as Wills, and Birgit Minichmayr as Emmi, contributing to a very thought-provoking movie.
In actual fact, Furtwangler was not interrogated prior to his appearance before the de-Nazification commission, and walked into the hearings entirely unprepared and secure in his assumptions of innocence. The commission flailed him with the same charges mentioned in the movie, which were poorly prepared and supported and eventually all dismissed, but not without causing the conductor serious embarassment and distress. The proceedings were reported in a light very unfavorable to Dr. Furtwangler in the US news, with the result that the great conductor was never invited to play in the United States after the war. Furtwangler died in 1954. His interpretations of Wagner and Beethoven are still studied.