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Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss

Harlan reworked brilliantly the Jew Suss film. This will be the anti-Semitic film. - From the diary of Joseph Goebbels, December 15, 1939.

You’re a talented, ambitious film director, lauded in your homeland and feted elsewhere for your movies. You can choose your projects. Producers throw money at you and don’t interfere with your work. You have final cut. You’re well paid. You lead a privileged life. You are married to a beautiful actress, who is your leading lady.

Suddenly: a political sea change. Ruthless men seize power. The Minister of Propaganda calls you in. He wants you to direct a film and use your wife and many another of your country’s famous actors in the cast so that the film will draw a large audience. He promises you a plentiful budget.

You read the script. It’s scurrilous propaganda that denigrates and villifies the government’s so-called enemies. Almost certainly, this film will inflame your countrymen against these perceived foes; many may die as a result. You can’t flee; you’re too famous, and they’d never willingly let you out. Don’t make the film and you might never work again; in fact, you might be killed and your family with you.

With some tweaks, this was the dilemma that faced Veit Harlan, a renowned German director of the 1930s. The Minister of Propaganda was Joseph Goebbels. The script he gave to Harlan in 1938 was anti-Semitic shit entitled Jew Suss (Suss the Jew). Harlan made the picture. It was a hit.

He would come to rue his decision, perhaps not so much for the film itself but for the repercussions that followed the Nazi defeat. He was twice tried, twice acquitted for contributing to the holocaust by directing Jew Suss. That wasn’t the end of it. The court of public opinion denounced him. After the war, he couldn’t find work; when he did, he had to direct under pseudonyms for a number of years.

This documentary about Harlan employs the customary mix of period photographs and movie footage, and talking heads, to examine Harlan’s case. Part of what makes the film unique is that the talking heads are mostly not pundits and historians proffering distanced or academic opinions. Harlan had five children by two wives. His kids, now elderly, and his grandchildren, mostly young women in their twenties, were filmed at length. Their responses manifest divided feelings about his actions and about being related to him by blood.

Harlan claimed he was forced to make Jew Suss and denied that he understood the possible deadly consequences. His apologists claim that he made the film well because he was a true artist and could not make a movie any other way. Some family members believe this. Some reject these avowals and say he knew what he was doing, he was responsible for the deaths of many Jews, and his crime was inflected by never confessing he had erred grievously in accepting Goebbels’s and Hitler’s commission. This division in the family—and some who speak are conflicted within themselves about Harlan’s guilt—lets us see how problematic, complex, and emotional the question of his culpability is.

So which way Harlan? Dupe under duress with no real clue about what he was doing? Skilled filmmaker who morphed into a stinking Nazi propagandist with buckets of blood on his hands? Somewhere in between? Have a look at this engrossing piece of work, a significant contribution to the cinema of fascism and the holocaust, and decide for yourself.

Written by: Neil Flowers, February 19th 2011

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