Hitler’s Third Reich produced no great films. Leni Riefenstahl was a brilliant innovator and superb editor, with an extraordinary gift for visual effects, but I would hesitate to call Triumph of the Will, or even Olympia great films, unless greatness can be confined to technical prowess. Nazi Germany did not have the equivalent of an Eisenstein or Pudovkin, who still managed to create masterpieces out of political propaganda. Perhaps this reflects a difference between National Socialism and Communism, even though Stalin was no less murderous than Hitler. Great work can still emerge from the utopian ideal of the workers’ paradise. It is harder to imagine artistic excellence arising from violent racism. D.W. Griffith’s white supremacist movie The Birth of a Nation is a possible exception to this rule, but this film, too, is more remarkable for its technical innovation than anything else.
The most infamous Nazi propaganda film is Veit Harlan’s Jew Süss, made in 1940. It’s a vicious reworking of Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel about an 18th century Jewish financier, named Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, whose daughter is raped and killed by his boss, the Duke of Württemberg. In the film, it is the sinister Jew who cheats the innocent Duke, infiltrates and corrupts the Gentile community, and rapes a pure Christian woman, who drowns herself as a consequence. To the cries of “Kill the jew!” from the baying mob, Süss is hanged in the climactic scene. Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss a brilliant new documentary on Harlan and his legacy directed by Felix Moeller, does not dwell on Harlan’s motivation. Instead, it shows how the director’s family was affected by his notorious career. It is a brilliant exposé of the way history resonates through the generations, of the ripples that continue to emanate from one man’s nefarious actions.
Jew Süss was a huge success in Germany. Heinrich Himmler ordered all SS men to see it. Veit Harlan became Goebbels’s star director, displaying in several films his technical mastery of crowd scenes and lurid dream sequences, as well as an appalling taste for sentimental excess (rather like Riefenstahl’s feature films). And his wife, the Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum, had a glittering career in wartime movies as a romantic blonde heroine who almost invariably dies beautifully, usually of drowning, earning her the sobriquet Reichswasserleiche, the Reich’s water corpse.
It is impossible to know for sure why Harlan, who had many Jewish friends and whose first wife was in fact Jewish, agreed to direct this vile piece of work. Opportunism, perhaps; careerism; an attraction to power; or perhaps he shared enough of the Nazi ideals to join the brown ranks. Maybe it was all these things. After the war, Harlan was tried twice for complicity in crimes against humanity. He maintained that he had been forced to make the movie. And twice he was let off as a mere mitlaüfer, a fellow traveler.
There is always a temptation to ascribe all oddities and misfortunes in a family to some dramatic factor in the past, but the fact that two of Harlan’s three daughters, and one niece, married Jews is unlikely to be a total coincidence. One of the marriages ended badly. Maria Körber, whose acting career began in one of her father’s films, now says that she only married a Jew because she felt sorry for what he had suffered. The second daughter, Susanne Körber, committed suicide after her husband died. Her daughter, Jessica Jacoby, considers herself Jewish, and writes for a German-Jewish paper. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, married Stanley Kubrick, who had wanted to make a film about Harlan, but never managed to get the script right.
The most intriguing member of the immediate family is Harlan’s eldest son, Thomas, who was a keen Hitler Youth during the war, and worked with his father after the war. But he changed his mind about everything when his father was declared innocent for the second time by a judge, who, like many German jurists at the time, had wartime blood on his own hands. “That did it,” he says in the film. “I wanted nothing more to do with those kind of people.”
As often happened in such cases, he became an obsessive seeker of justice, a Nazi hunter in Poland, a Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, and a lifelong critic of his father. He was the son, who took on the burden of guilt from an unrepentant father. Old and sick himself now, Thomas declares that this burden should never be lifted. Responsibility, he says, should be born by my children, and the children of my children, and their children, and so on and so on.
It is a frightful burden, and one can understand (even if one cannot quite sympathize with) the feeling of his half brother, Kristian, an architect living in Zürich, who refuses to publicly acknowledge his father’s guilt, and is furious at what he sees as Thomas’s betrayal. Hearing some of his siblings talk, it is as though Thomas, and not Veit Harlan, is the main villain for exposing to the public the family’s raw nerves. Even Jessica Jacoby, who is anything but soft on the past, finds an excuse for her grandfather, whose propaganda played a part, however indirectly, in the murder of her Jewish grandfather. It was Harlan’s bitterness about being left by his first (Jewish) wife, Dora Gershon, that explains his collaboration with the Nazis, she believes.
But the saddest statement in the film comes from one of Harlan’s granddaughters, Alice, who is French, lives in Paris, and doesn’t even speak German (although she looks like a propaganda picture of blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan womanhood). Alice is Thomas’s daughter. When her grandfather’s film was discussed in school, Alice denied that she was related, despite her surname. She now works as a physical therapist. Some of her patients are Jewish survivors. She knows that she is blameless for her grandfather’s sins. Yet she talks about her “tainted blood.” Jew Süss, and the horrors it represented, she says, has left a “genetic trace,” a guilt that was passed on from father to child.
Alice Harlan is utterly innocent, of course. But the very notion of tainted blood, alas, is uncomfortably close to what stirred up all the violence in the first place.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, written and directed by Felix Moeller and distributed by Zeitgeist films, will be playing at Film Forum in New York City March 3–March 16.