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
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