BERLIN (Reuters) - A new German film turns the spotlight on a man many in the country would rather forget: Veit Harlan, director of infamous Nazi propaganda movie “Jud Suess,” a wartime hit which helped set the tone for the Holocaust.
“Harlan - Im Schatten von Jud Suess” (Harlan - In the Shadow of ‘Jew Suess’), which recently opened in Germany, focuses on the filmmaker’s most notorious work, looking back at his output through the eyes of the extended family he left behind.
Director Felix Moeller told Reuters that by shooting the documentary he had hoped not only to explore the previously “taboo” subject of Harlan, but also how the family had dealt with the legacy of his work for Adolf Hitler’s regime.
“Our history as a nation under Nazism has been researched in great depth. But a lot of families still haven’t done anything to find out what went on inside them,” said Moeller, 43.
In interviews with Harlan’s surviving children and grandchildren, the film presents a broad spectrum of responses to living with the stigma of such a controversial forbear.
Harlan’s eldest son recalls how he tried to get his father to take responsibility for the films, while a younger brother refuses to discuss the matter publicly. Other children changed their names just so they could find jobs after the war.
“Jud Suess,” which opened in September 1940, was compulsory viewing for Heinrich Himmler’s SS and was shown to local populations in countries under Nazi occupation prior to mass deportations of Jews, according to the German Historical Museum.
With a cast of characters that play on popular stereotypes, the film charts the rise and fall of wily Jewish businessman Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, who uses money to buy power and influence among his Christian masters in 18th century Germany.
He gradually ensnares the Duke of Wuerttemberg in a web of debt to take control of the state, and rapes a Christian woman before the people rise up to take vengeance on him.
Harlan, whose Jewish first wife later died in Auschwitz, claimed after the war Goebbels had forced him to direct, and refused to take responsibility for “Suess” and other Nazi films.
“It is disputed,” said Moeller. “Some say Harlan resisted but there’s also considerable evidence that he saw ‘Jud Suess’ as a big chance for his career and was happy to work on it.”
Harlan himself was no genuine anti-Semite, Moeller said.
“It’s like (his son) Thomas Harlan said: that was the bad thing — he was the guy who sharpened the knife, without actually being an anti-Semite himself,” he said.
Alongside “Der Ewige Jude” (The Eternal Jew), the melodrama is probably the best-known piece of anti-Jewish cinema produced under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.
In his diaries, Goebbels recorded his delight at the movie, writing: “We couldn’t wish for a better anti-Semitic film.”
Commercial broadcasts of the film are still forbidden in Germany, where it can only be shown under tight restrictions.
Harlan was tried for crimes against humanity after the war but the presiding judge, a former Nazi jurist, acquitted him and he was carried on the shoulders of his supporters from the court room. A second attempt to prosecute him also failed.
To shoot his film, Moeller brought together members of the Harlan family, some of whom had never met before. Among them was his granddaughter Jessica, whose mother had married a Jew.
“On one side she had a Jewish grandfather and on the other, Veit Harlan: victim and perpetrator within one family,” he said.
Harlan’s niece Christiane married the late U.S. film director Stanley Kubrick, who was of Jewish descent. Her brother Jan went on to help produce many of Kubrick’s films.
In the new film, Kubrick’s widow recalls how her husband had to drink a glass of vodka before he was ready to meet Harlan.
Married three times, Harlan continued to direct films after the war but never with the same success. He died in 1964.
Though it is nearly 70 years since the release of “Suess,” Moeller felt the film could still be exploited by neo-Nazis.
“I think the potential negatives probably outweigh the benefits you could get from allowing it to be shown today.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan