Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss
Documentary puts focus on the Nazis’ favorite filmmaker
Truman Capote once remarked of the TV mogul William Paley that “he looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.’’ A similar sense of personal power and vigorous self-satisfaction comes through from the film director Veit Harlan (1899-1964) in the many photographs and film clips seen throughout Felix Moeller’s fine, understated documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of ‘Jew Suss.’ ’’ It runs through Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Or at least that sense comes through in the images before 1945.
Artistically, Harlan was a skillful hack — a German equivalent of such Hollywood contemporaries as Henry Hathaway and Henry King. What both obscures his reputation and guarantees him a place in film history was his lack of political scruples. Harlan raised no objections when the Nazis adopted him as their favorite filmmaker. As a result, he enjoyed lavish budgets and a high-powered distribution system that insured his 1940 film “The Jew Suss’’ would be seen by some 40 million viewers in occupied Europe.
“This will be the anti-Semitic film,’’ Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, wrote in his diary. Heinrich Himmler ordered all members of the SS to see it. A melodrama set in 18th-century Stuttgart, “Jew Suss’’ smacks its lips over a Jewish banker and his nefarious activities (financial, political, sexual) and eventual downfall. Harlan was twice tried and acquitted after the war for crimes against humanity for making the film. He seemed unfazed by the experience — other than regretting the interruption in the directing career he subsequently resumed.
In contrast, Harlan’s descendants feel very much fazed. Moeller includes numerous clips from Harlan’s films, as well as home movies and period photographs. The heart of the documentary, though, is his extensive interviewing of Harlan’s relatives (one of whom, a niece, is Stanley Kubrick’s widow). Moeller even shows us Harlan’s granddaughters as they watch a screening of “Jew Suss.’’
Early on, we get to see one of them draw and describe the Harlan family tree. As a device, it’s simple, involving, and provides essential clarification. There are many younger Harlans to be heard from. Too many, perhaps, and at too great length — that’s the greatest complaint to make about “Harlan.’’ It’s a family reunion with a few more guests than necessary.
Harlan wasn’t a Nazi Party member. He claimed he was simply going along with the powers that be. He only wanted to make movies. Presumably, he’d have been just as happy to work in Moscow, or Hollywood. It’s a mark of his moral complaisance that he could make “Jew Suss’’ despite his first wife’s having been Jewish (both of his daughters would have Jewish husbands) — and cast his third wife as the film’s Aryan heroine. “The non-anti-Semite was the best man to sharpen the knives,’’ Harlan’s son Thomas tells Moeller.
For a few years, Veit Harlan must have felt he was the right filmmaker at the right place at the right time. Did he ever stop to think that his luck also meant the doom of millions? Moeller’s documentary can’t supply an answer. It does, however, make the rest of us wonder.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of an editing error, the original version of this review misstated when the film opens at the Museum of Fine Arts. Its first screening is today.