Harlan: In the Shadow of ‘Jew Süss’

We’re going to make a film. Just for the Nazis. — Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), Inglourious Basterds (2009)

“The dimensions are unimaginable. What did such films lead to? What was their direct effect?” Christiane Kubrick poses the question that can’t be answered in Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (Harlan-Im Schatten von Jud Süß). But if it’s impossible to measure direct consequences of a film (or any work of art), Felix Moeller’s documentary considers the layered and lasting aftermath of Jew Süss, the 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda drama made by Kubrick’s uncle, Viet Harlan.

Opening 3 March at the Film Forum, Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss” features interviews with Harlan’s relatives, all struggling with his legacy and his responsibility for Nazi activities and beliefs. That legacy is complicated, if only because Harlan made films for decades, because and despite his notoriety for Jew Süss. At the same time, it seems easy to judge, because his movies were so insistently similar — in theme and construction. “It was the cinema of illusion and playing with emotions,” observes film historian Stefan Drösler, a style premised on manipulation and excess and with which “the fundaments of the Third Reich fitted together very well.”

Such expert opining frames the efforts of children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, to understand the man’s thinking — whether he knew what he was doing or was forced to make propaganda, as he contended when he was tried and acquitted twice for crimes against humanity. Introduced as the most “successful filmmaker” of the Third Reich (his work “seen by more than 100 million viewers throughout Europe”), Harlan appears repeatedly in black and white footage, holding his infant children, driving his fine cars, and directing his favorite actress, his third wife Kristina Söderbaum. She speaks as well, in a 1973 television interview, remembering that she was horrified when her husband agreed to make Jew Süss, even though, she insists, they couldn’t have known in 1939 that “it would be used in such a way.” The film, she says, “ruined our lives.”

The next generations — her children included — articulate other sorts of confusions, resentments and defenses. Their responses are diverse and personal, as well as highly aware of what might be termed a public responsibility — if not for Harlan’s work per se, then for having something to say about it. As the documentary offers brief scenes from Jew Süss and other examples of Harlan’s films, it supports the repeated opinion that the work was “cheesy” or “banal,” as granddaughter Nele Harlan puts it. “It’s full of caricatures, I find it grotesque,” says Alice Harlan, another granddaughter. And yet, submits Jan, a nephew, “The quality is irrelevant, it’s the mentality behind it” that remains troubling. Harlan’s son Thomas remembers that his father was revered as a great artist during his life: fans would “fall silent” as he passed on the street. “These were great moments,” he recalls, “Their souls had been touched. Anyway, it’s unique that someone should so perfectly touch a nerve throughout his public.”

Harlan was certainly a celebrity, and received assignments and commendations from Goebbels and Himmler. But his public reputation doesn’t help much in understanding his self-image. Christiane Kubrick — who is not only Harlan’s niece but also Stanley Kubrick’s widow — suggests that he saw himself as a great artist. “He thought only of the moment, of the good scenes,” she says, rather than of the political, social, and real-world effects. Moeller’s film includes a letter written by Himmler, urging all SS officers and policemen to see Jew Süss in order to feel inspired in their monstrosity. But this reveals only that Himmler believed in such effects, and not the effects themselves.

This difference is key to the documentary’s premise, that Harlan’s work had multiple repercussions — on his family and his broader audience. It doesn’t focus on that broader audience or on presumed victims of at least some of those viewers. The film offers no images of concentration camps or military actions. Instead, it returns to Christiane Kubrick’s question, more a thought experiment than a set of historical events. Still, the family’s responses echo others regarding the rise of the Reich, that individuals were ignorant or forced into silence or compliance, rather than actually subscribing to Nazi doctrine. The film appears to undercut this defense when it pointedly cuts to a scene from Jew Süss, in which the wicked Jew insists in a courtroom that he was forced to commit his crimes. But for the most part, the documentary refrains from making an explicit argument as to Harlan’s — or German filmgoers’ — guilt, and instead uses the family members’ responses as examples of disparate and unmeasurable effects.

That’s not to say the film submits that such effects are nonexistent or that the Nazis’ version of such effects is unique. Harlan’s son Kristian notes, “Film has always been subverted into propaganda. These days, [consider] all the war games and films… sponsored by the American military.” Though Kristian separates out his feelings about his parents as such from his sense of the films (“The image I have of my father is mine. And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father. Or of my mother”), his point is surely valid, that the seeming distinction between art and propaganda tends to exist in the eye of the beholder.

But Harlan, the film, doesn’t investigate this argument any more than it details the effects of the director’s work on other relatives. Another son, Caspar, suggests that Viet was an “artist who got carried away,” and that their mother Kristina’s contributions to Harlan’s work — as his primary performer, and one renowned for her dramatic death scenes — were his father’s’ responsibility. Her “strengths don’t include her intellect or her analytic abilities,” Caspar says, “She had no idea what she had done there.” Maria Körber, Viet’s daughter with his second wife Hilde Körber (an actress herself, who says she took her mother’s name at the studio’s insistence) believes her father’s artistic coarseness was a function of his passion: his relationship with Kristina, she says, was “the kind of love where you take complete possession of someone. It’s not for everyone.”

Not for everyone. Maria Körber’s description pertains as well to her brother Thomas’ efforts to “repair” the damage done by their father, writing books, making films, and hunting Nazis in Poland. A member of Hitler Youth as a boy, and co-writing with his father some later screenplays, Thomas turned against Viet, even setting fire to theaters that showed Harlan’s postwar movies. In his interviews here, Thomas says he now feels “extreme prejudice” against Viet, doubting his profession of ignorance. “Once you’ve see the fruit of your work turn into a murder weapon,” Thomas says, “It is difficult to say, ‘I am a filmmaker and will carry on making films.’ That was the end for me.” The one thing Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Süss” does make clear is that there is no end.

RATING 6 / 10