Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2008) dir. Felix Moeller
Starring: Thomas Harlan, Christiane Kubrick (nee Harlan), Jan Harlan, and Stefan Drosler
By Greg Klymkiw
Veit Harlan was the director of a dreadful picture called Jew Süss.
His movie is dreadful on two counts.
Firstly, it’s no good – awful, in fact. It creaks and groans with storytelling techniques from another age and renders melodrama in ways that allow detractors of the genre to level their knee-jerk criticism at even the genre’s best work because movies like Jew Süss are, simply and purely, BAD MELODRAMA.
Secondly, the picture is the vilest, most hateful, prejudicial anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda ever made. The picture was such a huge hit upon its first release that Jew Süss is credited with inspiring pogroms, became required viewing for the S.S. and took its rightful place in the Final Solution as the film equivalent of a murder weapon. The movie was commissioned by Josef Goebbels, the Minister for Propaganda under the Nazi regime. Released in 1940, this disgusting and poorly made piece of trash told the story of a Jew who rises to power, rapes a Gentile woman (instigating her suicide) until his actions eventually result in all the Jews of the region being run out on a rail - "triumphantly" , no less - by all the non-Jews. And I reiterate, the picture was a HUGE success at the box office in Germany.
And yet, perhaps because of the movie's success, one is shocked at how utterly execrable the picture is as a movie. If you could, for only a moment (God forbid) look past its anti-Semitism and try to assess it as a film, you'll find it works neither as fiction, nor does it APPEAR to even be good propaganda. Sure, bad movies have often been hits in all countries all over the world, but Jew Süss is not just bad, it's a total clunker of a movie. In spite of this, and sadly, even the most cursory analysis of the historical events surrounding the time this picture was made yields complete and total understanding of the picture’s power.
So many examples of propaganda, especially of the dramatic variety (not just in Nazi Germany), are inevitably replete with all the hallmarks of moronic incompetence. [It is, I think, worth mentioning that an earlier draft of this review bore a weird Spell-check-generated typographical error and produced the word “incontinence” rather than “incompetence”.] In essence, effective propaganda is, more often than not, the artistry of the obvious and aimed at the lowest common denominator. That said, Jew Süss, as cinema is in complete contrast to the work of another filmmaker who was working under the same regime, Leni Riefenstahl.
Jew Süss is clearly without the style, artistry and slow burn intensity of Riefenstahl’s great work, The Triumph Of The Will, which, no doubt, brought more than a few Germans on board Hitler’s bandwagon of evil as Der Fuhrer descended from the Heavens to deliver his evil plan to the masses at the Nuremberg rally.
Even now, though, unlike Jew Süss, Triumph has the power to GENUINELY stun, shock, thrill and even (dare I say it?) enchant – simply and almost profoundly on the basis of its sheer cinematic virtuosity. Riefenstahl, the Adolph Mädchenname des Kinos of Nazi Germany was not simply a blonde, beautiful dancer and actress, she was one of the 20th century’s most dazzling filmmakers.
Under the mentorship of Dr. Arnold Fanck, the mad master of German mountaineering melodramas, Riefenstahl was, I’d say, a born filmmaker and a great one at that who, in spite of making Triumph should have been allowed to keep making movies with the same level of support Veit Harlan received – not just during the war, but AFTER, as well.
Riefenstahl’s pariah status after the war was truly lamentable – shameful, in fact.
Not so lamentable in Veit Harlan’s case. Jew Süss might well have been made by Ed Wood (if he’d been an inbred totalitarian nincompoop) as a sort of period Plan 9 From Outer Space, or if you will, Plan Jew From the Middle East.
Pariah? Yes. Working filmmaker? Veit Harlan? Absolutely yes! This is what's even more extraordinary. Harlan kept making movies. Then again, call me a Bleeding Heart Liberal if you will, but I must admit I've always been against the notion of blacklisting any artists for anything, and that includes perpetrating propaganda. So many American films include(d) hateful propaganda at various points throughout its history and in the former Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein extolled the virtues of a regime that butchered millions of people in the pre-Stalin era. Once Stalin was in power, Eisenstein, save perhaps for his last film, Ivan the Terrible II and the unfinished Ivan the Terrible III, continued - much like Veit Harlan in Nazi Germany - to strap on the kneepads before his totalitarian boss and extoll HIS "virtues". Stalin murdered many more millions in the former Soviet Union including the Ukrainian Holocaust - the forced starvation of millions of nationalist peasants. Stalin's purges murdered even more.
Certainly Riefenstahl should not have been blacklisted and, I'd argue that maybe even Harlan should not have been made a pariah - a laughing stock, however, for just how dreadful Jew Süss is as a movie would not have been out of line.
Harlan and his place in both the Nazi regime and in cinema always seemed like natural subject matter for a movie and it’s odd it took so long for a documentary on Jew Süss and its maker to materialize, but that it now exists, is cause for some kind of celebration.
Alas, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is in that horrible never-never land of “it’ll have to do for now“. Director Felix Moeller doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the story he wants to tell and by covering too much in too short a running time, the movie leaves one with far too many questions – not questions of the philosophical variety, but more along the lines of wanting to simply know more within the context of the material presented. Sadly, the movie lacks a clear focus.
There is, however, a fascinating tale buried in this flawed, half-hearted TV-style feature length documentary. The movie not only focuses on Harlan’s career as a filmmaker in the pre-and-post Jew Süss period, but it includes numerous interviews with his family – children (the great political filmmaker and author Thomas Harlan), grandchildren, nieces, nephews and, I might add, one fairly prominent niece, Christiane Kubrick, the widow of the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (and executor of his estate) and her brother, an equally prominent nephew, Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s long-time producer.
On one hand, Moeller seems intent on telling the story of a family and how they’re connected to a legacy of evil. On the other, Moeller seems equally interested in delving into the career of Harlan himself. Pick one, already, Felix - or if you want the whole boatload of bananas, choose that and do it properly. Oddly, the story of Jew Süss itself, feels almost like an afterthought in this documentary.
Moeller’s movie is a mixed bag.
This, of course, is what makes it the most frustrating type of documentary – its filmmaker has no voice. He has great subject matter, terrific interview subjects (the surviving family who run the gamut of defending, demonizing and being indifferent towards Harlan), carte blanche access to family home movies and photos, rare archival footage and scenes – not just from Jew Süss, but from all of Harlan’s films. While we watch with fascination because of all the elements listed above, the experience and overall impact of this documentary seems lacking.
Just as Harlan’s Jew Süss pales in comparison to Riefenstahl’s The Triumph Of The Will in the Nazi propaganda sweepstakes, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss pales in comparison to Ray Muller’s brilliant documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. With the latter film, Muller sought to provide balance to his cinematic perspective of Riefenstahl’s life and in so doing, he was compelled to infuse the picture with an epic scope. It is this sense of sweep and the presence of a filmmaker’s voice that makes it work. Moeller, on the other, has great material, but has no real idea what to do with it. The picture, and as its title asserts, seems to be more about a family living in the shadow of one picture.
Well I, along with Peggy Lee, must ask, “Is that all there is?”
There’s nothing wrong with the surviving family thrust, but their perspectives don’t have the power they need to because one feels there’s simply not enough focus placed on Harlan himself – his life, his work and finally, why he chose to remain unrepentant.
Perhaps, it was enough that he was the only filmmaker from Nazi Germany to be tried for war crimes (for making Jew Süss in particular) and that he endured two trials and was acquitted both times.
This, however, is one of many maddening aspects of Moeller’s documentary. I longed to get more details about these trials – clearly the materials exist as public record. As well, I wanted to know more about Harlan and what his state of mind might have been before, during, between and after the trials. Surely enough people have thoughts on the matter.
Interestingly enough, the clips used from Harlan’s other films that pre and post date Jew Süss look great – so great I want to see as many of them now as possible. The clips suggest Harlan was a master of melodrama – perhaps even an inspiration to Douglas Sirk – and weirdly, their use in the documentary serves to suggest that he was a great artist in his own right.
Even more weirdly, they lend credence to Harlan’s firm insistence that he was coerced into making Jew Süss and furthermore, my own assumption based upon the documentary’s use of these clips that Harlan perhaps intentionally made a bad picture.
Oh, why must this be my assumption and why do I seriously doubt this was Felix Moeller’s intent?
Because Moeller's picture, as made, is like so many documentaries these days – it’s not been created by a real filmmaker. It’s been cobbled together by a camera jockey with great subject matter and finally, he manages to deliver a film that is still worth seeing because it addresses issues surrounding what might be the most notorious, evil and artistically lamentable film of the 20th century.
For me, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss was and still is a must-see film. Even if it doesn’t quite do what it should, it’s better than nothing at all.
And that is something.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films. It’s a fine transfer and includes a few superb extra features that certainly supplement what’s lacking in the film itself. Definitely worth renting for anyone interested in the subject matter and of special interest to any Kubrick fans in light of the recent Kubrick Blu-ray box set. Scholars of this material may be better off buying the film since it has some excellent footage in spite of the film's lack of clear focus.