From 1939 onward, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, supervised the production of a trilogy of antisemitic films – Jud Suss, Die Rothschilds and Der Ewige Jude.
Of the three, Jud Suss, written and directed by Veit Harlan and unveiled at the 1940 Venice Film Festival to great acclaim, was the most commercially successful. Seen by 20 million Germans and 20 million other Europeans, it fanned the flames of antisemitism and facilitated the marginalization, persecution and murder of Jews throughout Europe.
Goebbels was extremely pleased with it. In his diary, he noted, “An antisemitic film of the kind we could only wish for. I am happy about it.” Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, was similarly impressed, ordering special viewings for SS men and members of Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads.
Ironically enough, Jud Suss was based on a bestselling historical novel by the German Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, whose subject was the 18th-century Jewish financier Joseph Suss Oppenheimer.
When Goebbels saw the British film version in 1934, he rubbed his hands in glee, knowing he could cynically twist and manipulate the material into a grotesque new form and antisemitic screed.
The man who implemented his vision was Harlan, a Berliner who studied theatre under the illustrious Jewish stage director Max Reinhardt and who was briefly married to the Jewish actress and cabaret singer Dora Gerson, who died in Auschwitz.
Probably the most high-profile film director in Nazi Germany next to Leni Riefenstahl, Harlan was a compliant and supple craftsman who possessed the rare gift of being able to fuse drama with ideology. Having done so in such feature films as Der Herrscher (1937) and Die Reise nach Tilsit (1939), Harlan was the ideal candidate to direct Jud Suss, which employed the services of Jewish extras.
After World War II, Harlan was the only figure in Germany’s entertainment industry to be prosecuted by the Allies, having been charged with aiding and abetting antisemitism. Twice acquitted, he went on to direct six films in postwar West Germany. He died in 1964 at the age of 64.
Felix Moeller’s German-language documentary with English subtitles, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss, focuses on what his descendants think of him in light of his contributions to Nazi culture. It will be screened by the Toronto Jewish Film Society at the Al Green Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 4 p.m. and again at 7:30 p.m. during Holocaust Education Week.
Jud Suss is an insidious film of the first degree, starring the Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian, whose first wife was the Jewish pianist Irene Saager.
It portrays Oppenheimer as a cunning manipulator who enriches himself at the expense of the German people and a sexual predator who ravishes the blond Aryan maiden Dorthea Sturm, played by Harlan’s Swedish wife, Kristina Soderbaum (whose father was the secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences).
Harlan’s descendants, bearing the stigma of his surname and reputation as Goebbel’s faithful collaborator, are generally ashamed of their father and grandfather.
One of his sons, describing his role as “unforgiveable,” says he created “an instrument of murder.” A daughter admits the film left her speechless and disgusted. As she puts it, “I felt like going out and puking.”
Harlan’s niece, Christiane Susanne, the wife of the late Hollywood Jewish director Stanley Kubrick, calls Jud Suss “repulsive.” His grandson finds it “shocking.” One of Harlan’s other sons sits on the fence, claiming it is a family matter.
The most poignant comments are expressed by Jessica Jacoby, the daughter of Susanne Korber, one of Harlan’s daughters and an actor who converted to Judaism to marry a Jew.
In a devastating observation, Jacoby points out that while Harlan, her Christian grandfather, demonized Jews through his film, her Jewish grandfather, a decorated veteran of World War I, was murdered in Minsk during the Holocaust.
The juxtaposition is stunning.
While none of Harlan’s descendants defend him, they claim he was personally not antisemitic and was coerced to make Jud Suss. In postwar Germany, Harlan claimed he was “used” by Goebbels. As for Soderbaum, she said that Jud Suss “ruined” her life.
By any yardstick, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss is a riveting movie, amalgamating the past with the present and underscoring the importance of film in shaping public opinion.
But the gaps in it are puzzling. Moeller does not even try to understand why Harlan agreed to write and direct Jud Suss. And he says nothing about how it was made. These are serious omissions in an otherwise historically important film.