Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Harlan - In the Shadow of Jew Süss is a 2008 documentary by Felix Moeller that examines the director of the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda film, Jew Süss, Veit Harlan, by interviewing the many members of his extended family. The documentary is a captivating, incisive look into his life as seen from a distance by family members desperately trying to come to terms with being related to the only German director tried for war crimes, not once, but twice. Both times he was acquitted.

Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels is enthusiastically greeted by director Veit Harlan

The family tree of Harlan is a large one and director Moeller wisely has Harlan's granddaughter, Alice, map out the family tree on poster board for the audience, lest we fall into utter confusion. Each of the family members, from sons and daughter to grandsons and granddaughters to nieces and nephews, all, understandably revile the film that made the Harlan name infamous in Germany after the war. This is not surprising and had the documentary simply been about their denouncement of Veit Harlan's work it would have been a rather mundane affair. Instead, Moeller has latched onto something quite interesting here and, in the midst of so many talking heads all related in one way or another going on about their familial shame, something perhaps overlooked upon its release. Essentially, what one ends up with is a cross-section of Germany and it's reaction to its own complicity in one of the greatest crimes in human history. Having watched it twice now, I can say this is, I believe, what Moeller is going for and he succeeds.

Harlan married three times, had five children and these five produced more children, from multiple marriages until finally, even Stanley Kubrick's widow, Christiane, is in the mix, being one of the nieces. Some of the children married into Jewish families after the war and one daughter, Susanne, even converted to Judaism after marrying Claude Jacoby, who escaped Germany and fled to America in 1938. Harlan himself married a Jewish woman in the twenties, his first wife, Dora Gershon. In 1943, Gershon perished at Auschwitz. The contradictions and complications of the Harlan family tree allow for a deeper look into their collective psyche and it is not long into the film that we realize that Moeller isn't really interested in Harlan's motivations but, rather, what his family thinks those motivations were. That is to say, and not to belabor the point, it's the reaction and coping of those indirectly involved that provide the insight into the reactions and copings of many Germans after the war.

The youngest of the family members, three granddaughters who appear to be in their teens and twenties, find the film repulsive morally but also dull and, in the words of one, "cheesy." It is in their history classes that they are gaining a fuller understanding of what it all meant. We see them first, and this makes perfect sense, because they represent the Germany of today. They know of the past horrors but it's all second and third hand to them and school provides their primary association with their own familial complicity. Gradually Moeller introduces others, nieces and nephews, who speak of a more direct guilt by association and finally, Harlan's children themselves, who run the gamut from something pretty close to outright dismissal of any wrongdoing by their father to overt guilt and gnawing feelings of responsibility.

One son, Kristian, takes the attitude that any thoughts he has about his father are his alone, understandable enough. But then he goes on to defend his father, using the argument that Harlan was forced to make the film even though he didn't believe in it. Still, he can't understand why his father made it so good. Harlan's other son, Thomas, supported his father when he was a teenager but as he grew older and learned more, he turned against him, something Kristian doesn't understand and feels caused Harlan unnecessary torment until his death in 1964 on the Isle of Capri.

Dorothea (Kristina Söderbaum) commits suicide after sexual coercion by Joseph Suss Oppenheimer.

But Thomas defends his views well, and spent his life making art films and aiding in the hunt for Nazi war criminals. His decision to do so came in 1952, after his father was acquitted a second time for crimes against humanity. Thomas describes Jew Süss, rightfully I think, as a murder weapon and says:

The judge, Dr. Tyrolf, who found him innocent on two occasions had, during the war, had Ukrainian women beheaded for the theft of a headscarf during an air raid. And the thought that my father had been found innocent amongst and by such people was abhorrent to me. That was it! I thought, this is a world I want no further dealings with. I must entirely distance myself from it.


Thomas doesn't believe his father was coerced into making the movie but made it of his own free will. Harlan was undeniably in the service of Goebbels but had he been forced to make something he considered evil, Thomas asks, would he have involved his wife, Kristina Söderbaum, in the production? Of course, she was a big star so Thomas' logic doesn't entirely work. Goebbels would have insisted, most likely, that Kristina be involved. But to the question of why he made the film so well, it could be because he believed in the film or, pulling a Colonel Nicholson, simply felt he should do the best job he could no matter what the subject. That explanation is a little thornier and a lot less believable.

One thing that makes the issue tricky for all involved is the question no one wants to ask and, in fact, never does: Why didn't Harlan leave Germany like the scores of other German filmmakers and actors? And what about his third and final wife, Kristina Söderbaum? In 1935, while others were fleeing Germany, she was moving there from Sweden to try and break into German films . The two, viewed through archival footage, including an interview with her conducted in the sixties, honestly don't ever seem very troubled about being the two biggest names in the Nazi film industry. Her archival interviews are all about the bad rap they got, not, "Oh my God! We made films for Nazis! I was directly involved in propaganda designed to incite the murder of anyone of Jewish descent. My God, my God, what have I done?" Nope, nothing like that. In fact, in what can only be described as extraordinary while fully acknowledging that the word "extraordinary" doesn't even come close to doing it justice, Kristina says in her sixties interview:

It [the film Jew Süss] ruined our lives. That's what it did. Like that. And at that point, you simply couldn't have guessed this. That it could be used in such a way. That it, that it could simply wreck a person's life.


"That it could be used in such a way." Not, in such a way as to incite the murder of Jews. No, that it could be used to wreck her life. And by saying, "used", she implies that, at face value, the film shouldn't wreck anyone's life but they twisted it and used it to stab her in the back. And, oh yeah, I guess some Jews died too but that's nothing compared to having to live out your life on massive German estates and the Isle of Capri knowing people didn't like your hate film. Poor thing.

After that, Thomas' theories gain credibility and the delusions of Kristian seem like nothing more than revisionism.

Veit Harlan and Kristina Söderbaum

Throughout the documentary, Moeller keeps the camera focused on the family, mixing in only occasional footage of Harlan and Söderbaum and the hateful Jew Süss. His intent is getting them to write the history, getting them to accept, deny or revise that which so horribly happened. He does it across generations, with Germans both Jewish and Gentile, directly and indirectly involved and, in the process, gets to the very soul of Germany and it's own tormented and conflicted feelings with its recent past. Jessica Jacoby, daughter of Susanne, gets to the very core of the matter when she notes that her grandfather on her mother's side, Veit Harlan, made films for the Nazis while her other grandparents, on her father's side, were killed by the Nazis in Minsk. What her one grandfather did, she says, her other grandparents "paid for with their lives." It's that bizarre counterpoint that Kristian won't look in the eye and from which Thomas cannot look away. The documentary provides no answers to any one question, one way or the other, but in many ways, examines Nazi Germany more thoroughly than most historic documentaries ever do.