Guilt Complex

Felix Moeller, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film, 99 minutes. Lotte, Nele, and Lena Harlan.

VEIT HARLAN’S HYSTERICAL COSTUME MELODRAMA Jew Süss, seen by twenty million Germans and twenty million other Europeans on its release in 1940, is widely regarded as the most virulently anti-Semitic of the films made during the Third Reich. Directed by Harlan under Joseph Goebbels’s close supervision, it recast Lion Feuchtwanger’s anti-Nazi novel about the life of the Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, adviser to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemburg; Süss was hanged at the behest of his court enemies in 1738. Harlan’s movie-star wife Kristina Soderbaum played the Aryan woman who kills herself after Süss rapes her. The film’s value to the Nazis as rabble-rousing propaganda is indicated by Heinrich Himmler’s order that it be seen by all SS guards and police.

Two current films address Harlan’s loathsome work. Oskar Rohler’s Jud Süss: A Film Without a Conscience, a fictional piece about Goebbels’s coercing of the actor Ferdinand Marian to play Süss, was ridiculed by some critics after it premiered at the Berlinale in February and has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. First to these shores is Felix Moeller’s Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, a trenchant documentary that probes whether or not Harlan himself was an anti-Semite or a mere fellow traveler, based on the evidence of his other films; it also explores the effect of Jew Süss on his family. To this end, Moeller interviewed Harlan’s three sons (including the author, filmmaker, and Nazi hunter Thomas Harlan) and surviving daughter (the other committed suicide), a nephew, a niece (Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane), a grandson, and five granddaughters. The result is a tapestry of guilt, disgust, and incomprehension, though two of the children remain protective toward their unrepentant father and one of the grandchildren is indifferent. Thomas believes the family cannot be purged of its associative guilt and must continue to bear the burden. We learn that Harlan had many Jewish friends. We also learn that the breakup of his first marriage to the Jewish actress Dora Gerson, who would die in Auschwitz, may have led him to hate Jews. (Or did she leave him because he hated them?)

Moeller had access to remarkable home-movie footage of Harlan: touring the Charles Bridge in Prague with Soderbaum and one of their babies on a day off during the filming of Jew Süss; on his deathbed in Capri. Nothing, though, is more telling than the footage of the doomed Jews he brought from the Prague Ghetto to play their ancestors entering Württemburg after Süss had repealed the law banning them. Whatever florid talent Harlan had, he apparently had no scruples, as one of his granddaughters asserts.

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss plays March 3–16 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.