Harlan-in the Shadow of Jew Suss
The new documentary now playing at Film Forum “Harlan-in the Shadow of Jew Suss” reminded me of a story I once read about acclaimed German movie director Fritz Lang. The story goes that Josef Goebbels asked Lang, who was Hitler’s favorite movie director, to make propaganda films for the Nazis. Lang apparently said something along the lines of “Sure, I’d love to do it” and then left Germany that night. Veit Harlan, the Third Reich’s equivalent of Steven Spielberg and the subject of “Harlan-in the Shadown of Jew Suss,” stayed.
“Jew Suss,” a movie that Harlan directed in 1940 for Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, was so blatantly anti-semitic that it was required viewing for all SS members. To conceive of “Jew Suss” in contemporary terms plug in the name of a famous current movie director and then add in names of a few of the most popular current actors. Now imagine all of them collaborating on a racist movie essentially promoting genocide. Now factor in that the movie is a popular hit seen by 20 million people, and you will have the situation with “Jew Suss.”
“Harlan – in the Shadow of Jew Suss” is about how Harlan’s family has dealt with his legacy. Relatives from different generations hold forth on why they think Harlan made such a viciously anti-semitic film. Some theorize that he was a devoted filmmaker who just wanted to create the best work possible. Others say he was coerced by the Nazis. Perhaps it is one of his grand daughters, Jessica Jacoby, who cuts through the family “psychobabble” and says flat out that her grandfather was very anti-semitic. For me the most interesting Harlan relative is his niece Christiane Kubrick, widow of director Stanley Kubrick. While certainly not proud of her uncle’s legacy she recalls Kubrick wondering if he would have been able to resist the type of government support for his films that Harlan received. She also recalls how difficult and uncomfortable it was for Kubrick, who was Jewish, to actually meet Harlan.
While “Harlan-in the Shadow of Jew Suss” raises a subject about which I previously knew nothing and makes interesting points about him the film does not go as far as it could have. The issues around what Harlan’s intentions may or may not have been are laid out early in the documentary and are then hashed over by his relatives more than they needed to be. The film could have better used its time by exploring areas in addition to Harlan’s family. For example after WWII Harlan was put on trial twice for having made “Jew Suss” and acquitted both times. What were those trials like? What sort of evidence and what kind of witnesses were presented? Why was he acquitted? Why was the public sentiment toward Harlan so strong that after one acquittal Harlan’s supporters carried him away on their shoulders in triumph?
In terms of its editing, although “Harlan-in the Shadow of Jew Suss” includes clips from “Jew Suss,” home movies, Harlan’s other films and even footage of Harlan himself, the documentary mainly employs a “talking head” approach, cutting from one interviewee to another which, after a while, becomes tedious and repetitive. I think that a broadening of the subject matter might have mitigated this and made for a fuller and more compelling portrait of both Harlan and the context in which he worked.
Harlan-in the Shadow of Jew Suss, director Felix Moeller, 2009, Zeitgeist Films, 99 minutes