Film: Jud Suss (1940)

April 4, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / J to L

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Film: Propaganda/ DVD Transfer: n/a/ DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Historical Drama / Nazi Propaganda / Third Reich

Synopsis: A Jewish financier gets more than he bargained for when he infiltrates and influences the Duke of Wurtenburg in 18th century Stuttgart.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

Background

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In 1737, in the city of Stuttgart, Jewish banker and financier Joseph Suss Oppenheimer was arrested and accused of financial & societal villainy, and monopolistic management of local trade and taxes while under the rule of the Karl Alexander, the Duke of Wurttemberg.

Alexander died in 1737, and without his protection, Oppenheimer’s enemies were able to exact revenge, ultimately resulting in a controversial conviction which led to the financier being hanged a year later, and his remains gibbeted in a form-fitting cage on public display for 6 years before a final burial.

The case was later dramatized in a novel by German poet Wilhelm Hauff in 1827; in a 1925 novel by German-Jewish novelist / playwright Lion Feuchtwanger; and for the stage in 1930 by Czech-Austrian-Jewish playwright / critic Paul Kornfeld in Berlin.

Each effort was reportedly an attempt to address Oppenheimer’s death as a result of seething anti-Semitism in Germany (if not Europe), and it’s perhaps no coincidence studio Gaumont British mounted a lightly moralistic film version of Feuchtwanger’s novel in 1934, smack in the heat of Hitler’s fervent anti-Semitic propaganda campaign to vilify German Jews.

In the Feuchtwanger novel, Oppenheimer is a financial wizard who recognizes a prime opportunity for power and wealth by aiding the Duke of Wurtemberg in creating ‘a corrupt state’ for their own enrichment.

The two men remain allies until the Duke rapes and accidentally kills Oppenheimer’s illegitimate daughter. Oppenheimer then schemes to expose the Duke’s plans to overthrow parliament but is unable to relish the revenge when the Duke suddenly dies.

The twist in the novel has the Jewish Oppenheimer discovering he’s the illegitimate son of a Christian nobleman, yet he refuses to convert in the end – a move that could potentially save his life – and the town’s council convicts him of skullduggery and mismanagement with the Duke, sentencing him to death.

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Jud Suss (1940)

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In 1940, writer / director Veit Harlan was one of the top directors in Hitler’s Third Reich, with a string of hit melodramas co-starring his wife, hugely popular actress Kristina Soderbaum, known rather cheekily as ‘the water corpse’ because she frequently played angelic heroines who die in the water.

Jud Suss did pose a problem for Hitlerian screenwriters: Oppenheimer was complicit in aiding the despotic Duke in methods of self-enrichment, but Feuchtwanger’s novel was a statement against anti-Semitic mob rule and the loathsomeness of seething, generational racism: Oppenheimer attempted to right several wrongs, he lost a daughter, and stayed true to his faith because being Jewish was his culture.

The quandary for Harlan and his screenwriters was what to do with a story that was well-known, hugely dramatic, ripe with social commentary, but favoured the cultural enemy of the Nazi state?

The solution was rather ingenious. Build up Oppenheimer as a filmic incarnation of the grotesque Jewish caricatures that appeared in existing hate propaganda, transform the opportunistic financial whiz into a money-grubbing Iago, and have him commit Shakespearean evils to ensure he’s introduced as a bad seed who’s revealed to be endemic of a culture deserving total expulsion and, if the offence is sufficiently severe, death.

Oppenheimer spins a deliberate plan to enter Stuttgart, a city banned to Jews, by changing his hair and clothes to pass off as a gentile. Using his wily ways and smooth talk, he enters and influences the court of Duke Karl Alexander, with several key goals: make a lot of money, gain a lot of power, and facilitate a reversal of the ban in order for Jews to enter the city walls and eventually gain control over the city. Oppenheimer’s rabbi may not like the idea, but he goes along with the scheme because apparently that’s part of his DNA.

Ferdinand Marian’s performance characterizes Oppenheimer as a sniveling, chilly poseur. He bears a ‘Jewish’ accent that already distinguishes him from the ‘purer’ Aryan townspeople. He’s quickly identified – through manner, speech, and an aura of sliminess – as a Jew by a the future son-in-law of a town council member, and so begins a flurry of verbal slander throughout the script that shows only the corrupt Duke as being tolerant of Oppenheimer.

Karl Alexander hates Jews, but the Duke is a faltering German because he consistently allows himself to be poisoned by Oppenheimer’s quick-witted schemes that eventually position the Duke to become a sovereign ruler. The severe woes that befall the city – high taxes, absurd regulations, a gutted council, and fulfilling the Duke’s keen interest in pretty local girls – stem from Oppenheimer, thereby making the Duke less culpable; he’s becoming a despotic puppet ruler.

Oppenheimer’s not even an Iago knock-off, fueled by jealousy and a delight in watching the upper class suffer. Instead, Harlan and his co-writers have Oppenheimer birthed onscreen as a social evil: he has no other psychological dimensions beyond a zeal for money and manipulation, and his crimes are socially destructive towards what’s ostensibly a sedate, sleepy city.

To support the Reich’s anti-Semitic stance, the script flipped and reassigned incidences from Hauff’s original Oppenheimer novel, and integrated a sequence patterned after a cruel libertine’s fantasy typical of the Marquis De Sade’s writings.

In the 1940 film, the ‘new’ Oppenheimer is a bachelor, and when he arrives in town, he immediately has eyes for Dorothea (Soderbaum), the new wife of local good boy Aktuarius Faber (whiny Malte Jager). After becoming the chief advisor to the Duke, there’s a formal dance for the upper class, and Oppenheimer is seen coercing pretty girls to satisfy his benefactor during a town dance. The Duke’s loyal advisor also creates a distraction and attempts to seduce Dorothea in a private room, and from that failed attempt, he devises a scheme to steal her virtue.

As the Duke maneuvers to neuter the city council’s powers and positions soldiers at the border, a phony password is passed on towards the city’s more rebellious citizens – insurrectionists that include Dorothea’s father (Eugen Klopfer) and hubby Aktuarius.

Oppenheimer has her father arrested, and when her husband is caught at the city border using the wrong password, he’s snatched and dragged to Oppenheimer’s guest house, where a pair of torturers awaits further instructions.

The next day, Dorothea brings a petition for the release of her husband to Oppenheimer, but he tears it to shreds, exclaiming it’s something the Duke would’ve done as well – another ploy to diminish her already feeble stature. With no hope of freeing Aktuarius, Oppenheimer begins the foreplay of a sexual assault. When a handkerchief is placed in the open windowsill, it’s a signal from Oppenheimer to the torturers to begin turning the screws on a pair of palm crushers. As Oppenheimer gropes around his pet victim, the screams from the guest house eventually catch Dorothea’s attention, and she’s asked whether she recognizes the voice from afar.

She moves to the window, and Oppenheimer explains that as long as the handkerchief remains in view, her husband will be in torment. Once the cloth is in her hand, she grasps it with all her might, and Oppenheimer explains she need only offer herself, and her husband will be freed. The scene ends with him a few heartbeats away from raping Dorothea on a divan, and Harlan smash-cuts to Aktuarius being freed under the orders of Oppenheimer’s rabbi / lieutenant – a greasy, hairy, almost simian figure resembling the drawn caricatures flaunted by the Nazis, if not the paper-mache mobiles seen in newsreels of anti-Semitic parades.

Tne torture of Aktuarius is particularly nasty. In the Hollywood production of Captain Blood (1935), for example, whipping is shown onscreen but the camera stays on the victim’s face; and in Captain from Castile (1947), a child dying from the brutal actions of the Spanish Inquisition are never shown.

Harlan staged the torture sequence with particular Sadean grisliness: when Aktuarius is brought into the house’s basement, he’s shown a chair, and given an explanation of how a simple horseshoe bolted under a metal plate can cause much pain and damage. Whenever the handkerchief is in place, his screams are heard, and he’s shown writhing in the chair once – to ensure audiences absorb the full cruelty of the film’s Jewish villain.

It’s the point of no return for Oppenheimer, because the staged torment and his rape of an angelic Gentile German of pure heart and spirit ensure he’s crossed every civil and moral line, and must pay dearly.

One would think the detail invested in such a sequence would be followed by a lengthy series of scenes designed to milk the husband’s anguish as he heads into town with broken fingers for help, storms to the estate with a mob, and demands return of his missing wife.

Instead we get what’s technically a dramatic gaffe. Aktuarius stumbles into town, seeking help. Harlan cuts to a shell-shocked Dorothea, stumbling through a forest clearing to some unknown / unseen destination; and Aktuarius in a flotilla with fellow citizens, reaching the shore of Oppenheimer’s estate, where he lays down the water-logged cadaver of his wife using his fast-healing fingers, and demanding justice from the mob.

One would think the distraught husband would’ve gotten help and gone straight to Oppenheimer’s estate and demanded a return of his wife, but without explanation Aktuarius knew Dorothea had been raped and drowned herself in a location known by someone. The only logic to this gaffe is simply Harlan wanted to get to the end of his grand moral tragedy, and by virtue of the dramatic impact of the Sadean torture / rape sequence, he knew the natural compliment had to be a mob assault, with logic tossed aside.

The finale happens quick and fast, and is constructed to ride the sense of outrage Harlan was trying to invoke from audiences: disgusted by the heroine’s death, he has the mob shouting out to ‘the Jew’ for his ousting (“The Jew must go!”). Oppenheimer’s rabbinical lieutenant is home alone, and he bears the brunt of the mob anger when they chop through the doors. (Harlan cuts to another scene as the lieutenant hides behind a curtain, which leads audiences to presume the loyal assistant is probably about to be hacked to death. Either way, Harlan never reveals his fate, as he’s hence forth stricken from the film’s narrative.)

A posse then rides to the Duke’s estate and shoots down one of the pro-Jewish offices (“He was a good Jew lackey!”) before riding to a nearby town where Oppenheimer and the Duke were conspiring to take over Stuttgart. The Duke suddenly succumbs to the stress of the posse’s rage and dies of a heart attack, leaving Oppenheimer alone and at the mercy of mob justice.

Next follows the world’s fastest courtroom scene, where Oppenheimer is portrayed as a strangely bored, excuse-laden snob (“Sitting here is a wretched Jew,” exclaims the judge, “who for months brought nothing but lies.”), ostensibly defending himself with an ‘I was just following the Duke’s orders’ lament.

When the court retires for deliberation, Oppenheimer has already become a non-person: he has no name, and is referred to as ‘the Jew.’ Dorothea’s father is asked for council, and he replies “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: That is not our way” – a reference to a prior iteration that assigns the revenge code to a ‘mis-virtue’ native to Jews.

The father then examines a Holy book, and quotes “Whenever a Jew mingles his flesh with a Christian, he should be hanged,” and it’s that contrived scripture which leads to Oppenheimer being hung in a gibbet cage, trumping Oppenheimer’s lone piece of evidence: a letter from the Duke, which outlines his approval of Oppenheimer’s methods to manage the financial needs of the city.

Harlan then engages in the same slow-burning detail as the torure / rape sequence, covering Oppenheimer’s death in multiple angles: once a noose is placed around his neck, he’s locked into the cage, and we’re shown its gradual ascension far above the crowd, while Oppenheimer shouts out “I’ve never been anything but a faithful servant of my sovereign. I can’t help it if your Duke was a traitor. I want to make everything good! Take my house, take my money, but let me live! I’m innocent. I’m just a poor Jew!”

Again, the dialogue has Oppenheimer depicted as someone ‘who just followed orders’ – ironically the same defense used by arrested Nazis at the Nuremburg trials after WWII – and vainly believing property and wealth are okay substitutes for an unfortunate, pungent moral infraction.

The dialogue reinforces the Nazi stereotype of a monetary-minded culture, and relates to Oppenheimer’s first scene in Jud Suss where he opens his ‘personal vault’ and reveals a plethora of gold, jewels and other assorted goodies, including Christian trinkets valued for their metal rather than spiritual comfort and theological function in sermons. Filmed through a gauzy lens to enhance the gold’s gleaming power, Harlan’s point to audiences is that these are ‘holy things’ Oppenheimer has no ‘moral business’ possessing.

Harlan’s penchant for melodrama is professionally realized in slick dramatic scenes, and he knew what beats would yield a successful tale about an Iago figure who corrupts a vain despot, and offends a normal, peace-loving populace.

Had Oppenheimer been just an atheist whose family was ousted from the city due to criminal dealings, Harlan’s film would’ve been just sleazy melodrama and little else, but so much effort went into reconfiguring events in the novel, and transferring anti-Semitic stereotypes and racist missives into a new story whose only purpose was to support existing anti-Semitic sentiments, and impress moral rubes. These deliberate creative actions (within the context of Harlan’s filmmaking) make Jud Suss perhaps more vile than the The Eternal Jew (1940), Fritz Hippler’s phony documentary that sought to validate Harlan’s anti-Semitic points as fact via contrasting images and an inflammatory narration.

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Wrap-up

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Jud Suss starred a number of popular thespians, some of whom had appeared in important pre-WWII dramas. Prior to playing an influential rabbi in Jud Suss, Werner Krauss appeared in Henrik Galeen’s Der Student von Prage (1926) and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – both films co-starring Conrad Veit (who would play Oppenheimer in the British 1934 version of Jud Suss). Ferdinand Marian (Oppenheimer) had appeared in Douglas Sirk’s La Habanera (1937) and Curtis Bernhardt’s German version of The Tunnel (1933). Many of these directors were integral to Germany’s film industry, and would leave for America when Jews were forbidden to work in film without special permission from Nazi government.

Perhaps the most curious actor among the cast is Kristina Soderbaum, then Harlan’s wife. She had risen to stardom in several Harlan films – Jugend (1938), Verwehte Spuren (1939), Das unsterbliche Herz (1939) and Tilsit (1939) – but in Jud Suss her role is vital only as ‘the girl raped by the Jew.’ Her character is a vapid hausfrau, and functions as the innocent bait which Oppenheimer takes. In terms of a role, Dorothea is merely a chess pawn; one can only assume Harlan felt Soderbaum’s knack (and popularity) for playing doomed virtuous heroines made her a perfect fit, and would boost the film’s profile as a form of popular social drama rather than hate propaganda.

In addition to the fiery racism in the film, there’s Jud Suss’ generic technical finesse. It’s slickly directed production with a star-studded cast, nicely photographed by Bruno Mondi (he would later photograph the pastry puff Sissi series in the fifties), well edited, and features a moody score by Wolfgang Zeller (Vampyr, L’Atlantide) who rather interestingly uses an ethereal organ in the scenes where Aktuarius carries his dead wife through the city streets to Oppenheimer’s front door.

It’s a full-blown studio production and propaganda designed to support a national racist policy, and Propaganda Minister Goebbels reportedly had SS troops and concentration camp guards watch the film, if not to instill hatred of Jews, than support already bankrupt thoughts among recruits. Indeed, the film – branded by Harlan’s son Thomas as a filmic “murder weapon” – may have helped moral fence-sitters and non-conformists get lost in a hateful ideology and follow nasty orders they’d reconsider (or simply not care about) in civilian life.

Harlan’s film was reportedly a box office hit, and he continued to make almost a film each year (most co-starring Soderbaum), culminating with the last feature produced during the Third Reich, the ‘we can win the war’ nonsense Kolberg (1945). Harlan was subsequently charged twice for war crimes, but he managed to avoid conviction and was able to restart his directorial career in 1951. Among his 11 final films, the most peculiar is Anders als du und ich / Bewildered Youth (1957), a drama that posits homosexuality as a psychological ill.

Jud Suss should’ve been a career killer, much in the way Leni Riefenstahl (Olympia) never rebuilt her own directorial career nor was able to argue her lack of fully comprehending Nazi ideology, and one can argue Harlan slipped through the cracks as members of the film industry were filtered through the war crime courts.

In the fascinating documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss (2008), it’s revealed the judge who found the director not guilty in each of the two trails was a former Nazi, but neither Harlan nor Soderbaum were able to avoid protestors for the rest of their career, and the film remains under a formal ban in Germany, save for restricted exhibition via the Murnau Foundation.

Harlan’s final films during the Third Reich were Pedro soll hängen (1941), Der grosse König / The Great King (1942), Die goldene Stadt / The Golden City (1942), Immensee (1943), Opfergang (1944), and Kolberg (1945). In 1951, he restarted his career with Unsterbliche Geliebte (1951), unsurprisingly co-starring Kristina Soderbaum.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss (2008) — Kolberg (1945).

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  Captain Blood (1935) — Captain from Castile (1947)

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External References:

IMDB —  Composer Filmography

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