Koch on Film

BY Ed KochHarlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (-)

Before seeing this film, I had never heard of Veit Harlan — who directed the 1940 movie “Jew Süss.” — which Manohla Dargis of The New York Times described as “one of the Nazis’ most notorious anti-Semitic works.”  Dargis also stated (in her review of “Harlan”) that when “Jew Süss” was shown at the 1940 Venice Film Festival, it was “excitedly received.”

No surprise when you recall that the United States and most countries in Europe at the time were grossly anti-Semitic.  No one rushed in to save the Jews from the assaults by Nazis and fascists — which culminated in the Final Solution:  death camps.  Anti-Semitic acts and violence against Jews were committed not only by the people of Germany and Italy, but also those throughout Eastern Europe in Poland, Hungary and even in the Soviet Union as they had in Czarist Russia.

It was Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda under Hitler, who gave Harlan (then the most lauded of German directors) the assignment of creating a cinematic masterpiece designed to draw the European populace to great heights of anti-Semitic violence and hatred.  I thought that role had been played by Leni Riefenstahl — who helped the Nazis glorify their regime with her films “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia.”

Interestingly, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, he was tried for war crimes and acquitted.  Why?  I don’t know; but if helping the Nazi cause were sufficient basis for conviction, almost the entire German nation would have been found guilty.  Very few people opposed Hitler openly.

Today, things are totally different.  Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany is probably the most active nation in Europe in terms of condemning anti-Semitism and preventing its recurrence.  I met Ms. Merkel when I went to Berlin in 2004 as Chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Anti-Semitism (sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).  She welcomed my delegation with a magnificent speech denouncing anti-Semitism — clearly displaying her strong emotions on the subject.  She was shortly to become the Chancellor of Germany.

The conference was extraordinarily successful in binding the 55 member nations in their resolve to combat and seek to eliminate contemporary anti-Semitism by enacting civil legislation and educating youth throughout the world of the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Now back to the film.  This movie is a one-trick pony.  It depicts the efforts of Harlan’s children and grandchildren — many who appear in the film — to clear his name from the taint of anti-Semitism.  They didn’t convince me.  His films, the product of his ability to produce “art,” added to his reputation as he depicted Jews as threatening to dominate the world and, in the case of “Jew Süss,” adding the sexual ingredient of a despoiler who was responsible for the death of a German woman.

I went to see this film, hoping that it would include more footage of “Jew Süss.” Although that movie was used primarily as the vehicle for Harlan’s descendants to defend him in this documentary, only a few snippets of the actual movie were displayed.  One exception in terms of his family’s defense was his oldest son — who appeared to recognize his father’s contribution to the deaths of so many Jews (six million is the number, not mentioned).  In any event, I suggest that the comments of Harlan’s family on a 70-year-old movie do not make a film for today.

Henry Stern said:  “The movie consisted mostly of interviews with Harlan’s descendants as to how their lives had been affected by their ancestor’s fame and subsequent notoriety.  Predictably, their reactions varied — with Veit Harlan’s son making films to atone for his father’s propaganda movies shot for Goebbels.  The film would have been stronger if it had more of “Jew Süss” in it; although then it might have been illegal to show it in Germany, the country where it is likely to attract the most interest.  Holocaust movies remind us of the horror of the events, and the roles that ordinary people played in it.  The film is not a great contribution to its genre; but it is fortunate that it was made, so that the cinematic aspect of the monstrous crimes committed by Germany under Hitler is explored.”

Unrated; 99 minutes. In German, French & Italian with English subtitles. Screening through March 16th at Film Forum; 209 West Houston Street, between 6th Avenue and Varick (7th Avenue). For the Box Office, call 212-727-8110.