Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Dark Auteur: Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss

It is impossible to deny Veit Harlan’s considerable place in the history of world cinema. The husband of Kristina Söderbaum, one of Germany’s most popular actress during the Nazi era, and the uncle of Stanley Kubrick’s future wife, Harlan was also the director of one of the most widely screened films of 1940. Unfortunately, that film was the viciously anti-Semitic Jew Süss, produced for the National Socialist propaganda ministry. The implications of that film dogged Harlan for the rest of his life and continue to haunt his family, who struggle to come to grips with their father’s legacy in Felix Moeller’s new documentary, Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

How bad was Jew Süss? After the war, Harlan was twice put on trial for crimes against humanity solely for directing the film (but was ultimately acquitted each time). Having been enthusiastically received by Joseph Goebbels, all members of the SS and Germany’s police forces were ordered to see it. As a result, many blame Harlan’s film for contributing to the willingness and alacrity of those charged with carrying out the Holocaust.

How well crafted was Jew Süss as a film, regardless of its incendiary content? That seems to be a matter of debate. Throughout Shadow, terms like “sentimental,” “kitschy,” and “old-fashioned” are used to describe Harlan’s pre- and post-Jew Süss work. However, the director’s middlebrow style clearly appealed to his Nazi masters, particularly in his defining film. However, contemporary experts though find little technical merit in Jew Süss to explain its visceral impact.

Moeller, who served as an archival researcher on The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (a profile of Harlan’s documentarian counterpart in Hitler’s propaganda machine), shrewdly excerpts Jew Süss, showing just enough to provide context, but not enough to reward those who embrace the controversial film’s ideology. The heart of Shadow though involves Moeller’s extensive interviews with Harlan’s surviving children and grandchildren, as well as his niece Christiane Kubrick.

As quite a large family, not every member is as interesting and insightful as the next. Still, there are some strong judgments rendered, particularly by first son Thomas, who once co-wrote screenplays with his father, before becoming his fiercest critic, a Nazi-hunter, and in an almost equally opposite extreme, a Communist guerilla in Chile. The Harlan family also represents a fair amount of artistic talent, including grandson Chester Harlan, an adventurous jazz musician whose music is sadly not represented in the film.

Ironies abound in the Harlan family, but Moeller wisely stays focused on the fundamental issues, avoiding tangents while consistently appealing to viewers’ intellect rather than their emotions. He unequivocally illustrates the enduring power of film, either as high art or craven propaganda (obviously the latter being the case with Jew Süss). Indeed, it is a fascinating look at the dark side of cinema history. Recommended for intelligent audiences, Shadow opens tomorrow (3/3) in New York at Film Forum.