Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (Zeitgeist Video, NR)

Director Felix Moeller’s documentary often has the feeling of a group therapy session as he intercuts statements from the different family members.


In a 1933 address to representatives of the German film industry Joseph Goebbels, head of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, used Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as an example of how “even the most obnoxious attitude can be communicated if it is expressed through the medium of an outstanding work of art.” Goebbels also perfected the “Big Lie” technique of propaganda, originally stated by his boss Adolf Hitler, which comes down to this: if you lie big enough and keep repeating yourself often enough, you can get people to believe totally outrageous things.

These two concepts come together in Jud Süß (“Jew Süss”), a 1940 Nazi propaganda film directed by Veit Harlan that was required viewing for SS members and enjoyed substantial commercial success as well. The film stars Werner Krauss in several roles (all Jews, subliminally reinforcing an attitude that “they’re all the same”) including the eponymous character who is portrayed as a corrupt financier and political operator with a sideline in rape and torture. It’s about as subtle as Der ewige Jude, in other words, the main difference being that Jud Süß is all the more insidious because it packages its anti-Semitism within a popular art form, that of the big-budget historical melodrama.

Harlan was a specialist in this sort of thing; his film Kolberg is the model for the fictional Stolz der Nation, which plays a key role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Harlan was the only Nazi-era artist charged with war crimes, but he claimed he had been acting under duress and was acquitted in two separate trials. However, as with another notable filmmaker and Nazi favorite, Leni Riefenstahl, Harlan was never able to shake his association with the Third Reich. Although he made several more films, he never came close to the success he enjoyed during the Nazi era.

Fair enough, but should later generations bear the taint of his actions? That question is explored in Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, whose main subject is how Harlan’s extended family (including five children, six grandchildren and a niece and nephew) deal with this legacy. They’re an accomplished group of individuals who have followed a variety of paths in their adult lives—several are artists, one is an environmental activist, one a physical therapist and one has dedicated much of his life to researching Nazi war crimes—and they offer up a variety of opinions on what it means to be related to the man who directed perhaps the most anti-Semitic film in history.

Director Felix Moeller’s documentary often has the feeling of a group therapy session as he intercuts statements from the different family members. This often-used documentary technique can be deceptive, because it implies a collective conversation took place when in reality a number of separate interviews have simply been cut together to create that appearance. Fortunately, as a group, Harlan’s progeny (who include Stanley Kubrick’s widow Christiane and producer Jan Harlan, niece and nephew respectively of Veit Harlan) are articulate and thoughtful. Together they address most of the obvious topics and, aside from the personal connection, don’t voice opinions that different from what you would expect to hear if Moeller had chosen to interview, say, professors of philosophy or film. This is both reassuring and somewhat underwhelming; it makes the whole set-up feel a bit like a gimmick.

Despite those criticisms this is still a DVD very much worth seeing, particularly if you are interested in the Nazi period or in questions about the relationship between culture and politics. The most interesting sections of the film were the discussions that placed Harlan’s work in historical context. Although we’ll never have a definitive answer as to how much Harlan personally shared the sentiments expressed in his best-known films, it is clear that he had a talent for making sentimental melodramas that meshed perfectly with Goebbels’ desire to deliver propaganda through mass culture.

The fact that Harlan persisted in creating melodramatic films in the 1950s, long after the style had fallen out of fashion, suggests that he didn’t alter his style to suit the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Instead, the kind of film he was capable of making was a perfect match with the kind of film they were willing to pay to have made. Cultural production in Germany was controlled by the Ministry anyway so, like many other artists who remained in Germany during the Nazi period, Harlan may simply have decided to take advantage of the opportunities offered to those who were willing to play ball.

Of course none of this gets Harlan off the hook—there’s no getting around the fact that he directed films that aided the Nazi cause—but it does add some nuance to the discussion. One DVD extra is particularly useful in this regard: a 48-minute interview with the German author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, who discusses Harlan’s entire cinematic output as well as Jud Süß. Other extras include an 11-minute question and answer session with Jessica Jacoby, granddaughter of Harlan and writer for the German-Jewish newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine, and a six-page booklet that contains more information about the interview subjects and a director’s statement from Felix Moeller. | Sarah Boslaugh

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