DVD: Harlan – In the Shadow of Jud Suss (2008)

April 4, 2011 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Zeitgeist Films/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: November 23, 2010

Genre: Documentary / Third Reich

Synopsis: Documentary on the descendants of Veit Harlan, director of the infamous anti-Semitic Nazi film “Jud Suss” (1940).

Special Features: Interview with filmmaker Alexander Kluge (48:08) / 2009 Q&A with Veit Harlan’s granddaughter, journalist & critic Jessica Jacoby (11:23) / Foldout booklet

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Review:

Felix Moeller’s documentary isn’t really about Veit Harlan’s career as a top filmmaker during the Hitler’s Third Reich, but rather a fascinating examination of whether the sins of one man not only affected his family, but whether they even acknowledge his culpability for writing and directing one of the most blatantly anti-Semitic films ever made, Jud Suss (1940).

The story of a Jewish financier’s gradual entanglement into the Duke of Wurtemburg’s court in the 1700s and his eventual hanging formed the basis of two novels and one film, but through the warped spectacles of the Nazi regime, the story was easily reconfigured into a cautionary tale for the masses with a simple punchline: Jews are dirty, money-grubbing creatures that need to be purged from German society to ensure peace, racial purity, civility, and fairness. Or perhaps more simply, ‘the only good Jew is a dead Jew.’

Harlan’s film – which he directed and co-wrote, and which co-starred his wife, Kristina Soderbaum – is still banned in Germany (plus a few other countries). Within North America, there is a legit DVD packed with historical ephemera and commentary track, but it’s not the kind of film that’s easily available in most shops for rental or sale. Jud Suss is an inflammatory work crafted as popular entertainment with high production values, but its messages and grotesque Jewish caricatures make it for most an unpleasant if not surreal experience.

And yet for those who’ve never heard of the film nor its director, the obvious question is why does Veit Harlan’s name continue to resonate among historians, and deserve an exhaustive documentary about culpability and consequences?

Perhaps Harlan’s only other contemporary would be Wolfgang Liebeneiner, another top director who found success during the Third Reich, and made the pro-euthanasia melodrama Ich klage an / I accuse (1941). There were B-level directors and documentarians who made variably offensive or outright propaganda films, but these particular A-list directors thrived under the Nazi regime, and were able to restore their careers after WWII. The big difference: Harlan was among the few filmmakers charged twice with war crimes due to one film.

His story is also quite fascinating: an actor, then director, he was a known name among film fans, and was married to one of the era’s top stars, and the photogenic family was ideal for movie mags and publicity pap machines. In later years, Harlan spoke rarely about Jud Suss, but he explained his involvement with the film as being forced due to the country’s repressive regime, and he never apologized nor sought to remedy his situation through dialogue during and after his trials; he simply ‘did what he was told to do,’ because making movies was his life, and saying ‘No’ to Goebbels would’ve been career suicide, if not worse.

The arguments echo Leni Riefenstahl’s predicament in having made the landmark propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935), and being accused for using slave labor in her then uncompleted fiction film Tiefland (which was eventually completed and released in 1954), but with the exception of Fritz Hepler’s bogus documentary The Eternal Jew (1940), Jud Suss trumps every other film because its anti-Semitic messages were so crisp, and the film was ‘required viewing’ among the SS prior to being stationed at concentration camps.

Moeller’s doc is a very intricate work because Harlan’s situation was complex: his disliking of Jews was never fully confirmed, and his life story mandates the inclusion of interviews with his children – all of whom agreed to participate in this project, discussing their father, and for some, seeing his infamous hate film for the first time.

Married three times, Harlan had three children from second wife Hilde Korber: the late Thomas Harlan (1929-2010), who became filmmaker and writer, and prominent Nazi hunter; and two daughters – actress Maria Korber (who used her mother’s maiden name after pressure from her concerned agent), and the late actress Susanne Korber, who committed suicide in 1989.

From his marriage to third wife Kristina Soderbaum, Harlan had four children: sons Caspar (a filmmaker) and Kristian (an architect), and son Jan and daughter Christiane – the latter marrying director Stanley Kubrick, and the former becoming Kubrick’s production manager and producer after the late sixties.

What emerges from the interviews – which extend to several grandchildren – is an impressionistic dialogue of a family’s attempt to comprehend a father figure, his psychology within his film work and dealings with Jews in his personal and professional lives, and whether he left a legacy of any artistic note rather than notoriety as a famous Nazi director.

Among Harlan’s children, son Thomas is the most polarizing. Although he once collaborated with his father by writing the script for Verrat in Deutschland (1955), in later years he became a staunch Nazi hunter, author, and activist, calling Jud Suss a murder weapon in an archival TV interview, and arguing that while his father may not have disliked Jews, he never would’ve forced his wife to co-star in a racist film had he been ordered to make it; in Thomas’ eyes, her participation supports the claim that he made the film because it was an opportunity to work.

The racist content is also discussed in terms of Harlan’s own leanings. One theory posits the film was a venue wherein he could vent his anger towards his failed marriage to Dora Gerson, who was Jewish, and died in Auschwitz.

Later in Moeller’s doc, the camera crew follows select family members as they attend a screening of Jud Suss at the Murnau Foundation (which owns the film and controls its exhibition in Germany within an educational setting). After an intro from a historian and the screening, the responses vary from Harlan’s daughter Maria Korber finding the film ‘vomitous,’ and granddaughters Lotte, Nele and Lena seemingly regarding it as an melodramatic artifact that no longer reflects their generation’s reality.

Moeller also uses a wealth of archival stills, home movies, interviews and film clips, all supported by Marco Hertenstein’s excellent score, and while Harlan himself did pen an autobiography (and has been scrutinized in several biographies), the doc is an earnest, intelligent attempt to discuss the impact of a film and its auteur has had on two generations of the Harlan family.

Zeitgeist’s DVD includes a booklet with short bios of the director’s extended family. More important, however, is a lengthy interview with writer / director Alexander Kluge, whose comments are a mix of reflection, philosophical observations, and opinions on Harlan’s validity as a director during and after WWII. Kluge essentially fills in the gaps not addressed by Harlan director Moeller because the latter structured his doc to unravel according to the answers and views of his subjects.

Kluge clearly struggles at times to articulate some views because the issues within Moeller’s doc can’t be distilled into a simple sentence. There are cultural issues, aspects of guilt, and whether Jud Suss managed to brainwash the masses into hating Jews, or just reinforced the beliefs of a governing majority.

Granddaughter Jessica Jacoby also appears in a separate featurette where she responds to several audience questions regarding her family after the film was screened at New York City’s Goethe-Institut.

Collectively, the Q&As provide further context to a man and a work which will never be easy to categorize, although viewers unfamiliar with Jud Suss (1940) – in terms of its background, if not the film itself, may find Moeller’s doc rather incomplete.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Jud Suss (1940)

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External References:

IMDB Official Website — Further Reading: 1 / 2 / 3

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Buy from:

Amazon.comHarlan – In the Shadow of Jew Suss

Amazon.caHarlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss

Amazon.co.uk – Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss [DVD] [2009] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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