In the shadow of ‘Jew Suss’

German director Felix Moeller speaks to the ‘Post’ about his latest documentary on one of the most notorious Nazi German filmmakers, Veit Harlan and his family.

November 18, 2015 20:14
4 minute read.
Felix Moeller

‘THERE WAS a huge movie industry in Germany during the war, and Harlan’s movies were the most popular. He saw Goebbels as an equal, he could argue with Goebbels, he wasn’t just following orders,’ says director Felix Moeller in regards to the making of the notorious ‘Jew Suss.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

"He delivered Nazi blockbusters,” said Felix Moeller about Veit Harlan, the subject of his documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss. “He made the melodramas that touched a nerve with the audience.”

Moeller was interviewed last week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on a visit to Israel sponsored by the Goethe Institut, as part of the 50 Years/50 Films/50 Directors Project, which commemorates 50 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany by showing a German film in Israel each week. He said he became fascinated with Harlan when he was researching his doctoral thesis on Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.

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“There was a huge movie industry in Germany during the war, and Harlan’s movies were the most popular. He saw Goebbels as an equal, he could argue with Goebbels, he wasn’t just following orders.”

Harlan’s most popular and “most perfidious” movie was Jew Suss, a 1940 melodrama set in the 18th century about a corrupt, vicious Jew who uses his wealth to gain influence with a duke and who tortures and rapes Germans before he gets his comeuppance. The movie, which was seen by an audience of 20 million, was required viewing for members of the SS. More than 100 million moviegoers attended all of Harlan’s movies during the war.

In the documentary, Moeller looks closely at Harlan through archival footage, letters, home movies and interviews with his children and grandchildren.

What emerges is a chilling portrait of an ambitious director who put success before everything, and who made propaganda films not out of conviction but as a means to advance his career. The only artist from Germany to be charged with war crimes, Harlan was not convicted and continued to work after the war.

But the careerist, status-conscious director is only part of the story the film tells. The documentary also delves into how his legacy affected his family, who reacted in different ways. His oldest son, Thomas, became a filmmaker himself, and continues to devote himself to repudiating his father’s work, saying that Jew Suss was “a murder weapon.” His son Kristian is angry that Thomas has criticized their father publicly. One of his daughters, the actress Maria Korber, defends her father as a man who did not intend to use his work for any evil purpose. However, Korber took her mother’s maiden name to get work, because there was so much anti-Nazi sentiment in postwar Germany. Another daughter, Susanne, married a Jew and converted to Judaism, then committed suicide. His niece, Christiane Harlan, married the director Stanley Kubrick and moved to the US. Kubrick became so fascinated with Harlan’s story that he started developing a film about him, and said that when he met the Harlan family, he felt like “Woody Allen, looking like 10 Jews.”

“Watching Jew Suss, I’m still surprised by how sophisticated it is,” said Moeller. “Every time I see it I notice more little details. For example, on the bed of the pompous, vain Jew Suss, there is a Star of David pattern. It’s a ridiculous detail when you think that it is set in the 18th century. The set and costumes were meticulously done... I’ve seen the movie with a Jewish audience and people came to me afterwards and said, ‘This is much worse than [the notorious Nazi propaganda documentary] The Eternal Jew, because it’s a fiction film, and even though you cannot say that it’s a good film, it was very well done. His children were asking themselves, ‘If you say it was an order by Goebbels, why did you make it so good?’ They felt he could have undermined it with bad direction. But he was a driven artist. Such an artist cannot deliver bad work.”

Even as it became clear that Germany was going to lose the war, Goebbels continued to give Harlan huge budgets for his films. His last movie, Kolberg, a drama set during the Napoleonic wars, depicts the defense of a besieged fortress. Tens of thousands of soldiers appeared in the film, even as battles were raging at the front, along with nearly 200,000 extras.

“But once the war was over, there was no one to give Harlan these massive budgets,” said Moeller. His postwar films, most of which starred his second wife, Kristina Soderbaum, who was known as “the Water Corpse” because she drowned on screen so many times, did not do well. Harlan died in 1964 in Italy.

Through researching this film, Moeller, the son of director Margarethe von Trotta and the stepson of director Volker Schlondorff, became interested in the dozens of other propaganda films of the Nazi era, which cannot be screened in Germany. His latest movie, Forbidden Films, examines the debate over whether these films should still be banned in Germany, especially since they are available outside the country, including on YouTube.

“The authorities say they are too powerful and too dangerous and must be restricted... But are they really still effective, can they still influence people, or are they outdated historical documents?” Moeller said.

He said he hoped to come back to Israel next year, for screenings of Forbidden Films at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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