The viciously anti-Semitic 1940 German movie “Jew Süss” is one of the most notorious films ever made. Produced under the aegis of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who made the film required viewing for the SS, and directed by Veit Harlan, it premièred at the Venice Film Festival – a festival that was the brainchild of Mussolini – and was seen by some 20 million German moviegoers and another 20 million throughout the rest of Europe. Today it is one of the few Nazi-era films that still cannot legally be shown.
The documentary “Harlan – In the Shadow of ‘Jew Süss,’ ” written and directed by Felix Moeller, chronicles the history of Harlan’s film and its effect on his extended family down through the years. By focusing primarily on Harlan’s children and grandchildren, Moeller transforms what might have been mere cultural scholarship into something larger – a microcosm of postwar German guilt and redemption.
Harlan, who was not a member of the Nazi Party, was the only “artist” from the Nazi era to be charged with war crimes. Using the I-was-only-following-orders defense, he twice was exonerated. He died in Capri, Italy, in 1964, and in the interim directed a dozen more films in Germany. He never publicly expressed remorse for having made “Jew Süss,” from which Moeller – the son of famed German director Margarethe von Trotta – shows ample, nauseating clips.
A full-scale historical drama set in the 18th century, “Jew Süss” is the story of a Jew who passes himself off as Christian while corrupting a local duke, enslaving the citizenry with high taxes, and forcing himself upon a beautiful, married Christian woman (played by Kristina Soderbaum, a beloved German movie star and Harlan’s third wife). While not as deliriously, mystically Teutonic as Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous “Triumph of the Will,” “Jew Süss” was, in some ways, even more insidious because it was more straightforward and accessible. It’s like a big MGM costume picture drenched in poison.
Of Harlan’s four surviving children (Susanne, a fifth daughter who married a Jewish photographer, killed herself in 1989), the most vociferously antagonistic is Thomas Harlan, a writer and filmmaker who has spent much of his life denouncing his father’s film as an “instrument of murder.” Thomas’s position is that “The inheritance of guilt involves having an obligation to deal with it,” and yet we see how this inheritance has not only inflamed him but broken him. He has made his anger his life.
His other siblings – the actress Maria Körber; the architect Kristian Harlan; and Caspar Harlan, a filmmaker and environmental activist – are more lenient toward their father’s legacy. Maria wishes her father had apologized; Kristian, the least remorseful, at one time responded to the taunts of his classmates by renaming himself “Veit.” (Neither sibling apparently speaks to Thomas.) Casper seems the closest in spirit, though not in temperament, to Thomas.
Closer still is journalist and film critic Jessica Jacoby, the daughter of Susanne, who identifies as Jewish and who alone among the family believes her grandfather was actively anti-Semitic (as opposed to being a conscienceless opportunist who just got carried away). She pins this belief on the fact that Harlan’s first wife, who was Jewish and who ultimately died in Auschwitz, left him for another Jew.
Psychobiography of this sort runs throughout the film, and Moeller lets it all unspool without undue editorializing. Some of the ironies are flabbergasting. Harlan’s niece, for example, is Christiane Kubrick, the widow of Stanley Kubrick. She tells us at one point that her husband, who was Jewish, wanted very much to make a movie about Harlan. “After all,” he told her, “It’s my family, too.” Imagine what the director of “Dr. Strangelove” might have fashioned from this crazy quilt material! Grade: A- (Unrated.)
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