"Jew Suss" a striking study of Nazi movie star

Thu Feb 18, 2010 8:55pm EST

BERLIN (Hollywood Reporter) - "Jew Suss: Rise and Fall" is as fascinating as it is frustrating.

This is the remarkable story about the actor who starred in the Nazi's most infamous propaganda film, "Jud Suss," and the ruinous impact the anti-Semitic film had on his life, not to mention how it helped to inflame racists in their holocaust against European Jewry. In a sense, though, this film by German director Oskar Roehler also is a propaganda film, excoriating anyone remotely tinged by Nazism without examining the near absence of free will in Nazi Germany and lacking any real empathy for its central character.

Certain to achieve controversy, "Jew" will be a welcome guest at international festivals and could well wind up with distribution outside German-speaking territories. Indeed, its greatest attraction might be a supporting role: The film contains is fullest film portrait to date of Joseph Goebbels, who as the Reich minister of propaganda functioned as an old Hollywood studio chief, albeit with unlimited powers. Played by Germany's best-known actor, Moritz Bleibtreu, Goebbels is a wily, manipulative, domineering, charismatic force of nature, sweeping through rooms and unsettling everyone in his single-minded quest to spread the gospel of the Third Reich.

But the film is not about him. Rather it centers on Vienna-born actor Ferdinand Marian (1902-1946), whom Goebbels spotted playing Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello" in Berlin. Goebbels thought he would do well portraying bad guys (meaning Jews or English) in his propaganda films.

As played by Tobias Moretti, who does resemble the actor, Marian is a thoroughly shallow careerist and womanizer despite a loving wife and small daughter, but he's got a conscience. He hides a Jewish actor friend (Heribert Sasse) and turns down the lead role in "Jud Suss" when Goebbels offers it to him.

Indeed, according to sources, Marian turned it down for a year before acquiescing out of fear of humiliation and unemployment. However, the movie, written by the director and Klaus Richter, imagines that Marian gets caught up not only in the role but also the success the film apparently enjoyed at the Venice Film Festival in 1940.

His wife (Martina Gedeck) begs him to take advantage of his temporary fame to abandon Germany for America, but he insists on attending the Berlin premiere. Soon, alcoholism and philandering dominate his life as the realization sinks in that his participation in "Jud Suss" really is criminal.

Like Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," he is shown the future his sins have enabled: His forced journey to a succession of premieres and screenings takes him conveniently through a Jewish ghetto being roughly emptied and the early construction of Auschwitz.

The movie makes a point of having Goebbels insist that "Jud Suss," which he considers vital to the war effort, not be a cheap propaganda film but rather a film of artistic merit. He wants the character of the conniving Jewish businessman to be played with subtlety and not as a caricature. Strangely, Roehler should have taken Goebbel's advice. All his Nazis are repellent and his hero so besmirched by collaboration, however unintentional, that he refuses to grant Marian any redemption.

Whatever complexity and depth Moretti shows in the early scenes, his character falls into a drunken stereotype midway through the movie. Indeed, Marian hardly takes a sober breath after Venice, forcing the actor to weave through repetitive scenes of disheveled self-loathing. So Bleibtreu's Goebbels takes over the film.

Despite a deformed right leg that causes a pronounced limp, the Nazi minister strides through the movie with oily charm and a sharp tongue. He listens to people only to refute them and brooks little opposition.

A scene where he dictates how journalists should frame their stories about "Jud Suss" tells you how things work in a totalitarian state. Bleibtreu commands the stage in his every scene only to slip quietly away when the war deteriorates for the Nazis.

The film shows more sympathy for its women. Gedeck sees what her husband does not but can't get through to the man. Erika Marozsan, as his Czech lover and later wife, ultimately can't compete with the bottle either.

Smaller roles tend toward exaggeration, except for Sasse's camp survivor, who exists primarily to damn Marian for doing what he had no real way to avoid.

The production is a strong one. Carl F. Koschnick's cinematography bleeds much color from the film, making some scenes look virtually black and white. Isidor Wimmer's sets ring true, and Thomas Olah's costumes catch the decadent glamour of Berlin early in the war years.

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