Movie Review: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (2008)
Here’s a quote from “Cinemas of the World” by James Chapman that I’ve always found helpful in explaining the world:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
I expected more of that, or at least some of that, from the documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.” Instead, Felix Moeller’s look at Veit Harlan, the Frank Capra of Nazi filmmakers who directed one of the most notorious anti-Semitic films of the era, a period drama called “Jew Süss” (1940), focuses almost exclusively on how Harlan’s family has dealt with its tarnished legacy.
His son Thomas led a fascinating life, although we get only glimpses of it here. He became a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker. In the 1960s, in Italy, he unearthed thousands of Nazi crimes, which helped with thousands of prosecutions. He became, in effect, a Nazi hunter. He also publicly condemned his father. “Once you’ve seen that the fruit of your work turns into a murder weapon, it is difficult to just say, ‘Well, I’m a filmmaker and I will carry on making films,’” he says. “That was the end for me.”
Another son, Kristian, wearing a trim beard and a severe look, takes the opposite tack. “The image of my father is mine,” he says without heat but with firmness. “And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father or my mother,”
Caspar calls his father’s work “unforgivable,” while a daughter, Maria Körber, talks about how work-oriented their father was—to the exclusion of all else. She also mentions seeing “Jew Süss” late in life and wondering what the fuss was all about.
So do we, in a sense, since we only get glimpses of the movie here. No one even tells us the plot. We have to look that up for ourselves.
Basically, it’s a Nazi version of “Birth of a Nation.” In the 18th century, a Jewish merchant wiedles his way to power, taxes the people, takes a Christian woman by force, and is eventually executed for the crime. “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson,” one character intones in the end. It was a huge box office success in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Overall, Harlan’s movies were seen by more than 100 million people during the war.
That's why it’s startling when we learn that earlier in life Harlan had married a Jewish woman—a cabaret singer named Dora Gerson, whom he divorced in 1924. (She died at Auschwitz.) The phrase “fellow traveler” comes up often to describe his politics. He wanted to make movies and went along with whatever regime was in power. For most of his career, that was the Nationalist Socialist Party.
The Harlans are spread over Europe now. One grandchild, Alice, is French and beautiful; another, Caspar, is Italian and handsome. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, wound up living in England with her husband Stanley Kubrick (yes, that one), while her brother, Jan, produced Kubrick’s last four films: “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Overall, the doc includes too little history and too much handwringing. It’s video footage of what the Harlans think of Veit Harlan, and of being Harlan. The nature of propaganda is hardly explored.
The most telling moment may be when Maria admits that her father didn’t feel particularly guilty about any of it. “He’d always claimed that he’d been forced,” she says, “and that he’d been under such pressure that he couldn’t refuse.” This is then juxtaposed with the ending of “Jew Süss,” in which the Jewish merchant, on trial, says the same thing:
The charges against me are due to the direct orders I received from my duke. I have the duke’s written orders. You can check. I am merely the faithful servant of my master!
It's not only ironic but unoriginal. It was the most tired defense of the era. Or any era.