Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Nazi Film Still Pains Relatives


Nazi Film Still Pains Relatives
March 1, 2010

In the history of the cinema, the German director Veit Harlan occupies an especially ignominious position. It is his name that is attached to “Jew Süss,” perhaps the most notoriously anti-Semitic movie ever made, a box office success in Nazi Germany in 1940 that was so effective that it was made required viewing for all members of the SS.

But what motivated Harlan to write and direct such a film? Was he a Nazi true believer, an opportunistic careerist or just a filmmaker too fearful of retribution to say no to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief? Those are some of the questions that another German director, Felix Moeller, asks in “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,” a documentary that opens a two-week engagement Wednesday at Film Forum in Manhattan.

“Harlan may be forgotten, but he was an influential figure, frequently mentioned in Nazi documents and in Goebbels’s diary,” Mr. Moeller said. “That interested me as a historian, but I also wanted to know what the younger generation thinks of this. We think we know everything, but when you ask what your grandfather did on the Eastern Front, what went on in your own family, it’s a different matter, and that story is important to me.”

Mr. Moeller’s film includes some snippets from “Jew Süss,” whose commercial exhibition or sale as a DVD is still prohibited in Germany and several other European countries. Set in the 18th century, it claims to be a dramatization of the true story of how a sinister, cunning Jewish financier, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, took control of the duchy of Wurttemberg while preying sexually on a pure Aryan maiden, played by Harlan’s wife, Kristina Söderbaum. The bulk of Mr. Moeller’s film, however, consists of interviews with descendants of Veit Harlan, forced to live with his surname and the stigma of “Jew Süss.”

At 70 years’ remove, the movie itself may feel like a bizarre historical relic, but Karen Cooper, the director of Film Forum, said she found Mr. Moeller’s focus on the original movie’s reverberations through three generations of Harlans to be compelling and contemporary.

“This is a film that deals with issues of guilt and responsibility, which makes it every bit as relevant to you and me as to a German audience,” she said by telephone from the Berlin Film Festival, where a new feature film about the actor who played the title role in “Jew Süss,” Ferdinand Marian, was shown this year.

Harlan was married three times, the first time to a Jewish actress who died in a concentration camp during World War II, and he left behind a large family when he died in 1964 at 64. Some of his children and grandchildren wanted nothing to do with his film, Mr. Moeller said, while a few try to defend him.

But many of them are clearly haunted by the actions of their patriarch. “Why did he have to make it so well?” a son, Caspar, says to Mr. Moeller, referring to “Jew Süss.”

Caspar Harlan’s three daughters, on the other hand, seem more baffled than uncomfortable, dismissing the movie as a bourgeois melodrama that is “so cheesy and really banal.”

One of Veit Harlan’s daughters, Susanne Körber, who took her mother’s surname and committed suicide in 1989, converted to Judaism after marrying a Jew whose parents perished in the Holocaust. The film includes footage of their daughter, Jessica Jacoby, trying to reconcile a horrible truth: that one of her grandfathers was complicit in the death of the other.

“As a German and a Jew, I believe it is important to look at this particular part of the past,” Ms. Jacoby, who plans to join Mr. Moeller in New York for the premiere, said in a telephone interview from Berlin. “Younger people have a different relationship to the past. It’s very far away for them, and some don’t even know who Goebbels was. But when I see a film like ‘Jew Süss,’ there’s still a huge amount of anger.”

Mr. Moeller said he also wanted to offer a more accurate portrayal of the German movie world during the Third Reich. Though most people think of Leni Riefenstahl as the leading filmmaker of the Nazi era, because of the renown of “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia,” that was not actually the case.

“If you want to understand the movies that people actually paid to go and see, Veit Harlan is the one,” said Linda Schulte-Sasse, the author of “Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema” and a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota. “He was the Steven Spielberg or James Cameron of his era, and so you have to imagine ‘Jew Süss’ as a movie with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and Brad Pitt.”

Unlike overt propaganda films like “The Eternal Jew,” a notorious screed, “Jew Süss” was a commercial release, a hit that was seen by more than 20 million and featured some of the top stars of the day. So the issue of Harlan’s motivations has various possible answers, all of which Mr. Moeller’s film ponders without favoring one over another.

Mr. Moeller, 44, came to the “Jew Süss” project with an unusually broad set of skills and qualifications. He has a doctorate in history, has written several articles for scholarly journals on the arts during the Nazi period, served as a historical adviser to feature films, and also directed a pair of other documentaries on German film figures who lived through the Third Reich.

In addition, he is the son of a prominent German director, Margarethe von Trotta, and the stepson of another, Volker Schlöndorff. But that does not mean that he exempts himself from the historical burdens that are the subject of his film.

“You don’t have to dig deep to find these stories in German families,” he said. “The mother of my father was such a fanatical Nazi that, like Magda Goebbels, she committed suicide at the end of the war and used poison to take five of her six children with her. Those dark, unsettling times never leave you alone. My hope is that you learn from our lesson in history.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 2, 2010, on page C1 of the New York edition.

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