In the Shadow of "Jew Süss"

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“The dimensions are unimaginable. What did such films lead to? What was their direct effect?” Christiane Kubrick poses the question that can’t be answered in Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss” (Harlan-Im Schatten von Jud Süß). But if it’s impossible to measure direct consequences of a film (or any work of art), Felix Moeller’s documentary considers the layered and lasting aftermath of Jew Süss, the 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda drama made by Kubrick’s uncle, Viet Harlan.

Opening 3 March at the Film Forum, Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss” features interviews with Harlan’s relatives, all struggling with his legacy and his responsibility for Nazi activities and beliefs. That legacy is complicated, if only because Harlan made films for decades, because and despite his notoriety for Jew Süss. At the same time, it seems easy to judge, because his movies were so insistently similar—in theme and construction. “It was the cinema of illusion and playing with emotions,” observes film historian Stefan Drösler, a style premised on manipulation and excess and with which “the fundaments of the Third Reich fitted together very well.”

Such expert opining frames the efforts of children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, to understand the man’s thinking—whether he knew what he was doing or was forced to make propaganda, as he contended when he was tried and acquitted twice for crimes against humanity. Introduced as the most “successful filmmaker” of the Third Reich (his work “seen by more than 100 million viewers throughout Europe”), Harlan appears repeatedly in black and white footage, holding his infant children, driving his fine cars, and directing his favorite actress, his third wife Kristina Söderbaum. She speaks as well, in a 1973 television interview, remembering that she was horrified when her husband agreed to make Jew Süss, even though, she insists, they couldn’t have known in 1939 that “it would be used in such a way.” The film, she says, “ruined our lives.”

The next generations—her children included—articulate other sorts of confusions, resentments and defenses. Their responses are diverse and personal, as well as highly aware of what might be termed a public responsibility—if not for Harlan’s work per se, then for having something to say about it. As the documentary offers brief scenes from Jew Süss and other examples of Harlan’s films, it supports the repeated opinion that the work was “cheesy” or “banal,” as granddaughter Nele Harlan puts it. “It’s full of caricatures, I find it grotesque,” says Alice Harlan, another granddaughter. And yet, submits Jan, a nephew, “The quality is irrelevant, it’s the mentality behind it” that remains troubling. Harlan’s son Thomas remembers that his father was revered as a great artist during his life: fans would “fall silent” as he passed on the street. “These were great moments,” he recalls, “Their souls had been touched. Anyway, it’s unique that someone should so perfectly touch a nerve throughout his public.”...

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