BluRay/DVD Reviews

HARLAN – IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SUSS

By • Dec 23rd, 2010 •

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In 1940 the German filmmaker Veit Harlan directed and co-wrote Jew Süss. The film was based on the life of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, an 18th century Jewish banker and advisor to Duke Carl Alexander of Württemberg. Oppenheimer’s brief life–after the Duke’s death he was accused of treason and executed, his body hung up as an “example” for six years–had been used as source material before, but it should come as no surprise that the story of a powerful Jew thus tried and condemned should have become a pet project of Joseph Goebbels.

The film, which depicted Oppenheimer as a hook-nosed, conniving, greedy rapist, garnered the highest German cinema accolades. Harlan’s own young wife (his third), the Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum portrayed the tragic rape victim, who, having been sullied, goes off and commits suicide.

Heinrich Himmler made it a mandatory cinematic experience for members of the SS. Many of the background players were from the Prague–Jews given an opportunity they couldn’t refuse, a last chance to “defend” their religion in this film before being shipped off to concentration camps.

After the war, Harlan was tried as a war criminal, but he was acquitted on the grounds that his work was under the iron-fisted control of the Nazis, and he was therefore not responsible for the result.

Since the documentary HARLAN – IN THE SHADOW OF JES SUSS was my first encounter with the filmmaker and his oeuvre, I would have liked to have seen the actual movie, but only bits of it are in the documentary. Harlan was considered a very good filmmaker and a powerful propagandist, and yet what I saw of his films here (snippets of JEW SUSS and others) was bombastic and melodramatic, with some over-the-top histrionic performances, particularly those of his wife, Kristina Söderbaum. So, I never got the full flavor of the films that he made, nor was I given an understanding of why they were so effective in their own time.

But Harlan’s life, political beliefs, and prowess as a propagandist are not what HARLAN – IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SUSS is about. I think I was expecting a jolt of outrage, potent as caffeine, but that kind of emotional manipulation isn’t the intention of filmmaker Felix Moeller. He isn’t interested in whipping us into a lather about a movie that was made seventy years ago. Instead, he interviewed members of Harlan’s family (Harlan died at the age of 64 in 1964) in order to discover what impact his legacy has had upon members of subsequent generations. This is a complex family tree, containing divorces and re-marriages, Jews as well as gentiles. Amongst those interviewed are the offspring of Harlan’s second and third marriages, their children, and his nephew and niece. They bring a variety of points of view to the table. The surviving children of Harlan’s second marriage, Thomas and Maria, see their father, whom they adored, as an opportunistic filmmaker first, although they are almost willing to accept the fact that he was also a conscious perpetrator of anti-Semitic propaganda. Maria is quick to add that her father loved Jews and they loved him.

The sons of Harlan and Kristina Söderbaum, Kristian and Kaspar, cling to the idea that their father was coerced, that he had no choice except to make the film. They just wonder why he had to do such a good job.

One grandchild, Jessica Jacoby, doesn’t cut her grandfather much slack. Her mother, Susanna, sister of Thomas and Maria, married a Jew. While Veit Harlan was living in the lap of luxury, she muses, her paternal grandparents were dying in a concentration camp. She believes that Harlan’s anti-Jewish feelings, combined with a narcissistic compulsion to make films, no matter what, rendered him incapable of making a moral decision.

The younger grandchildren, who look like they are barely thirty, do not have the connection with their grandfather’s life that the older people do. They see JEW SUSS from a contemporary viewpoint, and find it melodramatic and not terribly impressive. They have to remind themselves of the historical context, but even then, the emotional connection that they have to this person and what he’s done is weak. It has nothing to do with them.

Initially, I was disappointed by this film. I think I wanted to see a fairy tale, or a Greek tragedy, where the descendents of the fatally flawed hero must pay for his wrong-doing in perpetuity. But I found that my thoughts were continuously drawn back to this matter-of-fact portrait of people getting on with their lives, in spite of a complicated and tainted family history.

On the box containing this DVD the publicity copy states that HARLAN – IN THE SHADOW OF JEW SUSS is “a searing story of a German family.” But I think the film is really looking at something much broader and more universal: how and why do human beings get on with their lives when, in a sense, we all have ancestral blood on our hands?

Moeller has made a contemplative and thought-provoking film.

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