Berlin’s hate fac­tory

Har­lan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, story of a Nazi film­maker, not rated, in Ger­man, French, and Ital­ian with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards

Say your great-grand­fa­ther was hanged as a horse thief. Or you trace your lin­eage back to Bene­dict Arnold. Maybe you’ve got Vlad the Im­paler skew­ered to your fam­ily tree. Do you dine out on it, ig­nore it, or do penance? What is the statute of lim­i­ta­tions on guilt by blood­line?

The closer the gen­er­a­tion, the heav­ier the bur­den. And the first few gen­er­a­tions in the shadow of Veit Har­lan feel the weight of his sins. Har­lan was the hottest di­rec­tor in Ger­many dur­ing the Third Re­ich, the fa­vorite of pro­pa­ganda min­is­ter Joseph Goebbels, and the au­teur of the most no­to­ri­ous film of the Nazi era: Jew Süss, a vir­u­lently anti-Semitic melo­drama that de­lighted the Führer and was hailed by crit­ics at the 1940 Venice Film Fes­ti­val. The young Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni wrote, “We have no hes­i­ta­tion in say­ing that if this is pro­pa­ganda, then we wel­come pro­pa­ganda. It is a pow­er­ful, in­ci­sive, ex­tremely ef­fec­tive film.”

Ef­fec­tive it cer­tainly was. Jew Süss was re­quired view­ing for SS of­fi­cers and con­cen­tra­tion-camp guards, sold a re­ported 20 mil­lion tick­ets, and fanned the flames of the Holo­caust with its stereo­typ­ing of evil, ra­pa­cious Jews. “It be­came a mur­der weapon,” says Thomas Har­lan, the film­maker’s el­dest son, who has spent his life de­nounc­ing and com­bat­ing his fa­ther’s legacy.

In Har­lan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, a fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary by di­rec­tor Felix Moeller, that legacy is ex­plored pri­mar­ily through the re­ac­tions and at­ti­tudes of Veit Har­lan’s de­scen­dants. Some are more crit­i­cal of him than oth­ers. Some ac­cept his post­war de­fense that he was, in ef­fect, just fol­low­ing or­ders. (Har­lan was the only Ger­man film­maker to be pros­e­cuted for war crimes in the post­war pe­riod; he was twice ac­quit­ted.) His chil­dren, with first­hand mem­o­ries of him, feel the weight of their fa­ther’s sins most keenly.

When she first saw the film as a young woman, his daugh­ter Maria ad­mits that she didn’t get what all the fuss was about. “He was pros­e­cuted for this?” When she saw it again at 70, “I wept. I could not com­pre­hend that my fa­ther had done this. I felt like puk­ing.”

Moeller’s doc­u­men­tary in­cor­po­rates clips from Jew Süss and other Har­lan pro­duc­tions, Har­lan home movies, and in­ter­views with the Har­lan chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, nieces, and neph­ews. To lesser or greater de­grees they all share a re­vul­sion to­ward the movie, but Thomas’ sib­lings gen­er­ally be­lieve he has gone too far in his pub­lic cam­paign against their fa­ther. “It should stay in the fam­ily,” says one. The younger gen­er­a­tion tends to dis­miss Jew Süss as bad film­mak­ing as well as bad karma, but Har­lan’s son Cas­par dis­agrees. “I ac­cept that he didn’t want to make it,” he says rue­fully. “But why did he have to make it so well?” Cas­par has be­come an anti-nu­clear ac­tivist in Ger­many. “The les­son I’ve learned from Ger­man his­tory,” he de­clares, “is that re­sis­tance must be prompt.”

Har­lan mar­ried three times. His third wife, the Swedish ac­tress Kristina Söder­baum, starred in Jew Süss as the vir­tu­ous Aryan beauty raped and driven to sui­cide by the evil Süss. In a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view in 1973, Kristina tried to dis­tance her­self and her hus­band from re­spon­si­bil­ity, in­sist­ing that he was forced by Goebbels to make the film. “ Jew Süss ru­ined our lives,” she laments. Har­lan’s first wife, Dora Ger­son, paid a greater penalty. Dora was Jewish. She and her fam­ily died at Auschwitz in 1943.

Har­lan’s last Third Re­ich film was Kol­berg, a his­tor­i­cal epic about a Prus­sian town’s re­sis­tance against Napoleon’s army in 1807. Har­lan later claimed that he had tried to show the hor­rors of war but that Goebbels had a fit and made him cut the graphic scenes out. But in his di­ary, Goebbels re­ported that, when he de­scribed scenes from the film, the

Führer was moved “al­most to tears.” ( Kol­berg is re­port­edly the ba­sis for the film-within-a-film in Quentin Tarantino’s In­glou­ri­ous Bas­terds.)

One of the in­ter­vie­wees, Har­lan’s niece Chris­tiane, is an ac­tress who met Stan­ley Kubrick dur­ing the film­ing of Paths of Glory. They were mar­ried soon af­ter the film wrapped and re­mained so un­til his death. She de­scribes her hus­band’s ap­pre­hen­sion at meet­ing her in­fa­mous un­cle and his sur­prise at en­coun­ter­ing “th­ese po­lite, amus­ing peo­ple.” “I’m stand­ing there like Woody Allen,” she re­ports him as say­ing, “looking like 10 Jews.” Kubrick wanted to make a movie about Har­lan, but it never got off the ground.

Har­lan’s de­scen­dants are scat­tered across Europe. A grand­daugh­ter is French, a grand­son Ital­ian. Two daugh­ters mar­ried Jews; a num­ber of the grand­chil­dren are Jewish. One of them says that her grand­fa­ther’s film “is a call to kill Jews, and my other grand­par­ents paid with their lives.” They all feel the poi­son of their her­itage, but by the third gen­er­a­tion it’s not as strong. “It would have been great if grandpa had been a re­sis­tance fighter,” a grand­daugh­ter ob­serves, “but that wouldn’t make me a hero.”

Har­lan died in Capri in 1964 and is buried on a pic­turesque hill­side there. He spent his last years in­sist­ing that he was nei­ther a Nazi nor an anti-Semite but merely a re­luc­tant pawn in Goebbels’ game. His de­scen­dants aren’t buy­ing it. But there may be a mes­sage in the court­room scene of Jew Süss, when Süss de­fends him­self in the dock. “The charges I face are due to the di­rect or­ders I re­ceived from my duke,” he pleads. “I am merely the faith­ful ser­vant of my mas­ter.”

Moeller stirs up a hot broth of ideas about cul­pa­bil­ity and the power of art for good and for evil. Some re­view­ers have crit­i­cized the film for what is not in it, for skimp­ing on clips or on con­text. But Har­lan is an ab­sorb­ing look into the DNA of guilt, and there’s plenty to get the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. ◀

The sins of the grand­fa­ther: Alice Har­lan-Stamm­baum

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