LOS ANGELES (JTA) — German director Veit Harlan may have made 29 other films between 1935 and 1962, but his 1940 anti-Semitic classic “Jew Suess” guaranteed his position as the favorite director of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Even to this day the film casts its baleful shadow over his descendants and a Germany still wrestling with the legacy of the Holocaust and its perpetrators. So 70 years after its premiere comes “Harlan: In the Shadow of ‘Jew Suess’ ” by the German historian and documentary filmmaker Felix Moeller.
“Harlan” is not so much a reappraisal of “Jew Suess,” or even of its considerable wartime impact — the film was a box office hit that SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered shown to his SS subordinates and concentration camp guards. Rather “Harlan” is primarily a fascinating examination of how the director’s descendants, still largely associated with the film industry and the arts, are accepting or denying the work and character of their notorious father and grandfather.
Moeller, 44, has included only a few brief scenes from “Jew Suess,” for screening the original is illegal under German law. Even a subsequent documentary can show only five minutes worth of outtakes. In its full length, “Jew Suess” was a twisted version of Lion Feuchtwanger’s historical drama of the same title. In the Harlan “adaptation,” the 18th century Jewish banker Joseph Suess
Oppenheimer worms himself into the favor of the Duke of Wuerttemberg, cheats and corrupts everyone, rapes a pure Aryan maiden, and is finally hanged for treason amid jubilant mob scenes. Harlan cut some financial corners by using Jews from the Lublin ghetto as film extras.
In his personal life, Harlan’s first wife was Dora Gershon, a Jewish actress whom he divorced in 1924 after a six-month marriage. She was killed in Auschwitz in 1943 and, according to Moeller, there is no record that Harlan, then a favorite of the Nazi hierarchy, tried to help her or that she sought his intervention.
Harlan would marry twice more, the third time to the star of many of his movies, the Swedish actress Kristina Soederbaum. The filmmaker died in 1964, and his direct descendants included five children, eight grandchildren, one niece and one nephew.
Harlan’s son Thomas has turned completely against his father, to the point of trying to burn down theaters showing his postwar films. Thomas Harlan lashes out against the judge who acquitted his father in two postwar trials for committing crimes against humanity. Another son, Kristian, defends his father and rages against the “disloyal” family members who have turned against their progenitor.
Three granddaughters, in their 20s and bearing the Harlan name, find it difficult to grasp the impact of “Jew Suess,” which one dismisses in “Harlan” as “cheesy and banal.”
Two of Harlan’s daughters and a niece married Jews. One of the daughters, Susanne Koerber (she adopted her mother’s maiden name) married Claude Jacoby, a Jewish photographer whose father perished in the Holocaust, and converted to Judaism. She committed suicide in 1989.
Their daughter, Jessica Jacoby, identifies as fully Jewish and works as the film critic of a German-Jewish newspaper. She judges Harlan harshly, considers him clearly anti-Semitic, and asks the viewer to consider her position — one grandfather was complicit, at least indirectly, in the extermination of her other grandfather.
Nearly as bizarre is the history of Harlan’s niece Christiane, who married the famed American-Jewish filmmaker Stanley Kubrick in 1958. Kubrick, his widow recalls, also wanted to make a film about Harlan, showing the day-by-day mechanics of producing a movie under Goebbels’ watchful eyes, but the project never came together.
Despite the testimony of Harlan’s kin, it is difficult to define the man. His children, though they did not see much of their workaholic father for long stretches of time, apparently loved him and the privileges they enjoyed due to his status.
One son adamantly denies that the filmmaker could have been an anti-Semite because “he had many Jewish friends and his doctor was Jewish,” though presumably in the pre-Hitler days.
Harlan himself never apologized or showed any public remorse for his role in the Nazi propaganda machine. During his two trials, his chief defense was that he had no choice but to accede to Goebbels’ demand that he direct “Jew Suess.”
Moeller, who spent two years on the film project, including months convincing the Harlan family members to speak on camera, doesn’t think his subject was “a committed Nazi or anti-Semite. He was more of an opportunist, mixed with a bit of cowardice and conviction, who saw his chance for advancement. “Once he took on the ‘Jew Suess’ assignment,” Moeller said, “he wanted to make it the best and most effective film possible.”
Moeller comes from a noted lineage of prominent movie directors: His mother is Margarethe von Trotta and his stepfather is Volker Schlondorff. All three family members are working on separate films on the Holocaust and its aftermath, indicating the profound and continuing grip of the Nazi era on the German imagination.
Moeller is doing a documentary on Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to murder Poland’s Jews in a string of extermination camps. In July he will travel to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem for additional research.
Von Trotta is working on a feature film about political scientist Hannah Arendt and the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, while Schlondorff’s next film will be about the Nazi occupation of France.