No one would accuse Quentin Tarantino of accurately portraying history in Inglourious Basterds, but one thing his World War II movie gets right is the Nazis’ high regard for cinema.
Film’s power to serve the state never figured more strongly than under the Third Reich – and perhaps never more lethally than in Jew Süss, a 1940 drama that helped set the stage for the Holocaust. Directed by Veit Harlan, one of Germany’s most popular filmmakers, the film tells
the story of Süss Oppenheimer, a physically repulsive Jew who uses trickery to steal from innocent Germans and who defiles one of their most beautiful women.
Released a year after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Jew Süss was seen by 20 million Germans, and eventually by 20 million other residents of Nazi-occupied Europe. Joseph Goebbels praised the movie in his diary; Heinrich Himmler ordered all German police and SS members to see it. The film ends on a somber but hopeful note: The Aryans have lost one
of their finest specimens, but the Jew has been exposed and cleansed from their midst. The implications are clear.
Seven decades after the movie’s release, Jew Süss has returned to the spotlight in Germany, where it has inspired two new films about the people who made it. The first of those movies, Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss, arrived in New York theaters on March 3, and focuses on the descendants of Jew Süss’s director.
BORN IN Berlin in 1899, Veit Harlan followed the same career path as the Nazis’ most famous propagandist, Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl. Like Riefenstahl, Harlan got his start as an actor, but would make his biggest impact behind the camera, where he enjoyed massive budgets and support from the highest rungs of the Nazi hierarchy. Like Riefenstahl, he would insist after the war that he had been nothing but an artist, that he had been coerced into serving the Nazis and that he hadn’t properly anticipated the power of his work. As with Riefenstahl, historians would later show that he was a liar.
In Harlan, strikingly, some of the director’s harshest attackers come from his own family. Nearly a dozen children and grandchildren speak on camera during the course of the film, offering personal memories and impressions of the family patriarch, who died in Italy in 1964.
Tortured in various ways by his legacy, their memories summon a range of emotions, with some denouncing him and others expressing a degree of sympathy. A couple have tried to disconnect entirely, living outside Germany and conducting their interviews in Italian or French.
Securing their participation required significant effort from Harlan director Felix Moeller, who previously worked on documentaries about Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich. “The Harlan family is very fragmented” – in some cases estranged – “and some of them told me that if a certain other relative is in the film, they will not participate,” he says.
But the chance to air their views about Veit Harlan – and to contradict their relatives – ultimately proved a powerful draw. Among those interviewed in the documentary are Christiane Kubrick, a niece who married the (Jewish) director Stanley Kubrick, and granddaughter Jessica Jacoby, the product of a marriage between Veit Harlan’s daughter Susanne and a Jewish photographer named Claude Jacoby.
On camera and off, Jessica Jacoby serves as one of her grandfather’s most passionate critics – arguing, in contrast to some of her relatives, that Harlan was a true “monster” and anti-Semite.
The director’s first, brief marriage to a Jewish woman named Dora Gershon does not undermine accusations of anti-Semitism, Jacoby says, but actually reinforces them. Gershon’s decision to leave Harlan, coupled with her later marriage to a Jewish man, generated a lingering hostility in the director, who told family after the war that she had survived. She had not: The 55-year-old Jacoby, who describes herself as a German Jew and lives in Berlin, later investigated the matter and discovered that Gershon died in Auschwitz, along with her husband and two daughters.
“No one in the family bothered to find out,” Jacoby tells The Jerusalem Post. “I don’t think anyone else really wanted to know.”
LOCATING THE line between family disagreements and outright denial proves one of the documentary’s more interesting features. “He was just an artist and got carried away,” one of Harlan’s sons tells the camera. Other relatives view the director merely as a short-sighted
careerist, someone too intent on his work to notice the evil around him.
Such claims are called into question, however, by other family members and historians, even in light of some evidence that indicates Harlan may initially have had doubts about Jew Süss.
For the role of the tragic young rape victim, the director would cast his third wife, Swedish actress Kristina Soderbaum, leaving some to wonder why he would involve her in a project he later claimed to find so objectionable. Shot in occupied Prague, Jew Süss used prisoners
from Jewish ghettos in certain scenes, undercutting suggestions that Harlan had been oblivious to the persecution already under way.
In the war’s final year, the director would film Kolberg, a historical epic about the valor of never surrendering. That movie served as the basis for Stolz Der Nation, the fictional film-within-a-film shown in Inglourious Basterds.
Despite his lavish budgets and big-name casts, Harlan’s reputation as an artist has not stood the test of time. For years, his name faded, and among those who still know his movies, many are now regarded as kitsch. But his importance remains, Moeller says.
“I think he is very underestimated among filmmakers in the Third Reich,” Moeller says. “People say that Riefenstahl was the most important director, and it’s true if you look at her groundbreaking aesthetics. Harlan didn’t do that, but people wanted to watch his films – he was a box-office guarantee.”
The director’s high profile – and that of Jew Süss – landed him in trouble after the war, when he became the only artist from the Nazi era to be charged with war crimes. Twice acquitted, he would continue making films almost until his death, though never at the same level of influence and prestige. (In the new documentary, one of the filmmaker’s sons reports that the judge at his trials, a German, had ordered the wartime beheadings of Ukrainian women for crimes as minor as stealing head scarves.)
Following decades in obscurity, the director has resurfaced in the last year not only in Harlan, but in Jew Süss: Rise and Fall, a German feature about the making of the movie. The fictional film, which premiered last month at the Berlin Film Festival, has generated
controversy among German critics, some of whom have bashed it for playing loose with historical facts.
Despite his long absence, the figure of Veit Harlan carries a natural
attraction for many Germans, Jacoby says. “I think people make him out
as some sort of larger-than-life artist who was taken in by devilish
forces,” she says. “It’s a very German thing – it’s the Dr. Faustus
figure, who will sell his soul to the devil to get what he wants.”
the analogy is flawed, she goes on. “He was certainly someone who was
very keen to have a career,” she says, “but I don’t think he had a soul