|Veit Harlan and Kristina Soderbaum|
At our weekly village movie night this week we watched a documentary called Harlan: In the Shadow of “Jew Suss” about Third Reich propaganda filmmaker, Veit Harlan, whose controversial film inspired a nation to persecute and murder all Jews. I had not heard of Veit Herlan before viewing this documentary, but it immediately became clear to me that his work, especially Jud Suss, was infamous throughout Europe. Harlan and his actress wife Kristina Soderbaum were similar in status to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Harlan’s films were shown in movie houses all over Germany and Europe and his wife, a beautiful Aryan blonde, was famous for her woman-child characters and her tragic screen deaths. They and their children lived a life of privilege during and after the Third Reich. Unlike many German filmmakers of the time, Harlan remained in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. He became closely affiliated with the Party, working very closely with Goebbels himself to produce anti-Semitic propaganda films.
After viewing the documentary, I found Jud Suss on YouTube and watched it. The film is set up as a period drama, taking place in 1770s Stuttgart. A new duke has just taken his place as leader. Upon taking a solemn oath to protect his people, the duke is celebrated and respected by his countrymen. But when the duke is denied funds for such extravagances as an opera, a ballet, and a personal guard, he turns to a wealthy Jew named Joseph Suss Oppenheimer from outside Stuttgart for financial aid.
Misguided by his greed, the duke allows Suss gradually take control of various political matters, including road taxes. Suss uses his power to abuse the people of Stuttgart and to open the gates of the city to his people, who have been historically denied entrance to Stuttgart. And, being Jews, they bring with them crime, licentiousness, corruption, and all the sins of hell. When Suss takes advantage of the chairman’s only daughter and causes her death, the people of the city, led by the duke’s dissolved council, rise up in rebellion. Suss is given a brief trial in which he lies and denies all guilt, and then he is hanged for defiling a non-Jewish woman.
The message of the film is clear, and there is no doubt of it’s cruelty. The Jewish characters are each caricaturized in the most disgusting way imaginable. They are greasy, with hooked noses and small glittering spectacles, and the wring their hands and hunch forward when they walk. They are all lying, manipulative, scoundrels. Their synagogue service is shown like some sort of chaotic heathenish devil-worship, with worshipers writhing and wailing, packed close together in the filthy synagogue. The movie does more than imply that Jews are inherently evil and corrupted. They must be first prevented from ever entering the country and expelled if they have gained a foothold, then hunted down, and killed like rats.
After the war, Harlan was one of the few filmmakers brought to trial for his participation in the Nazi plot. He was acquitted of two counts of crime against humanity, but the judge himself was a known murderer himself, so many feel that justice was not served. Harlan himself would continue to make films, albeit without the financial support he had had access to through Goebbels. He continued to deny his guilt, claiming that Goebbels forced him to make those films, that he had no choice but to comply with the party that was so much more powerful than he was. Some of his family believe that he was only interested in personal gain, that he made the movies he had to make in order to be successful at that time. But others argue that he wanted to support the party – he enjoyed the privileged life that collaboration awarded him and he believed in the messages that his films declared.
The documentary showed how the children and grandchildren of Veit Harlan continue to fight a sense of guilt left in the wake of Jud Suss. How could their father/grandfather make such a disgusting film? If he was forced to make the film, why did he have to make it so well, so convincingly? Why did he star his wife in a film that was potentially so explosive, unless perhaps he did not feel threatened by opposition to the film’s themes? Why did he not just say that he was making such films so that he could continue to live in Germany under the Third Reich? Did he or did he not believe the Jews should all be killed? How aware was he of what was going on in the camps? He must have known what was going on because he was working so directly with the people who were carrying out these heinous crimes against an innocent people. Indeed, his own first wife and her family were killed at Auschwitz.
His family are dealing with their guilt in a number of ways. Some, like his filmmaker son Thomas, have swung completely the opposite direction, becoming very liberal and contributing to the search for other Nazi war criminals. Some, like his two actress daughters, were forced by their agents to change their last name because no one associated with the Harlan name would be able to get work in the movie industry after the war. It is clear that the grandchildren feel more shame than guilt, though there is still a prevailing fear of the possibility that such ideologies could contaminate the bloodline.
The conclusion our group came to when discussing the documentary afterwards is that Veit Harlan’s family’s story is representative of the tensions which conflicted the German mindset after the war. The quest for justice for an entire people that either subscribed to the mode of thinking broadcast Nazi propaganda or fell victim to its message continues to this day. While it is impossible to see Harlan’s participation as anything benign, we must also consider the strength and impact of the ideological mode of thinking that promoted his work. It is particularly difficult to see an artist, a creator, as someone who would encourage destruction. The work is clearly deliberate, yet how much significance to its affect has been added in retrospect. So many of our American war films seem laughably jingoistic today, in a time when we are so critical of our government’s military operations. I do not think there is a simple solution to any of the problems left by the Holocaust. We must pursue justice while still maintaining our faith in humanity. Only through trust, courage, patience, forgiveness, and love can any of the scars left by that experience be healed.