Sunday, April 4, 2010

Nazi Filmmaker’s Family Denies He Was Anti-Semitic. Are they Correct? Critique of Harlan In The Shadow of Jud Süss

by Rhonda Spivak

The German documentary film by German Felix Moeller, Harlan In the Shadow of Jud Süs, which examines the life of Veit Harlan, one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious filmmakers, was premiered in Canada during Winnipeg’s Jewish Film Festival here on Sunday March 21.

“Film was arguably the most important medium of propaganda in Nazi Germany, so much so that German cinemas were protected by anti-aircraft units in the latter part of the war and, as a result, functioned until the end of the regime when very little else was standing,” said, Catherine Chatterly, a Post Doctral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Manitoba, and one of a number of panelists who critiqued the film after its viewing.

Millions across occupied Europe saw Viet Harlan’s most pernicious propaganda film Jud Süss which was so anti-Semitic, that Joseph Goebbels, who was appointed by Hitler to be the Nazi minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933, made the film required viewing for all SS members.

Chatterly noted that directors employed by Goebbels received “large salaries, perks, subsidies, and huge production budgets.”

The controversial Harlan, who was Goebbel’s top director, was the only artist from the Nazi era to be tried for crimes against humanity, but in fact was aquitted twice.

The commercial exhibition or sale as a DVD of Harlan’s film Jud Süss is still prohibited in Germany and several other European countries. Set in the 18th century, Harlan’s anti-Semitic film claimed 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.

Felix Moeller’s film about Harlan’s life includes some snippets from “Jew Süss,” but most Moeller’s film examines the Harlan family from the Third Reich to the present. It includes extensive interviews of Viet Harlan’s children and grandchildren, each of whom have differing responses to dealing with their father or grandfather’s artistic immorality.


One of the most significant issues arising from Moeller’s film is the question of why Veit Harlan wrote and directed the anti-Semitic movie Jud Süss in the first place. Was he a Nazi true believer, an opportunistic careerist or was he coerced by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief?

In his memoirs, Harlan claimed he was coerced to make the film, and in Moeller’s film most of Harlan’s children and grandchildren interviewed deny that the family patriarch was anti-Semitic, and claim that he had no choice but to agree to what was expected of him in the Nazi era.

One of Harlan’s sons Casper says in the film that his father Viet was “an artist who got carried away.” Another child says “Even if it cost him his life, he couldn’t make a bad film. There must have been coercion [for him to make the film].” Another family member says her grandfather Harlan couldn’t have been a Nazi, since “he had Jewish friends.”

Christiane Kubrick-who is not only Harlan’s niece but also the widow of famous film-maker Stanley Kubrick-suggests that Harlan saw himself as a ‘great artist,” and “ thought only of the moment, of the good scenes,” rather than of the political, social, and real-world effects of his film.

Yet, as Chatterly, who received her PhD in Modern Jewish History and Modern German and Central European History from the University of Chicago pointed out, these comments must be examined critically. As she noted, one of Harlan’s daughter’s, “ Maria Korber has apparently even convinced herself that her father directed Jud Süss because he presumed he could do so in a more humane and less venomous way than any other director,” a statement Chatterly found to be very suspect.

In Moeller’s film, one questioning son, Thomas Harlan asks whether his father, if he really had been coerced to make Jud Süss would have had his wife, Kristina Söderbaum star in the film. Why would he involve her if he didn’t believe in what he was doing?

Thomas, who is willing to accept responsibility for the behaviour of his father becomes obsessed with writing books, movies and hunting Nazis in Poland, finding evidence to assist in the prosecution of war crimes

Thomas turned against his father Viet, even setting fire to theaters that showed Harlan’s postwar movies. In Moeller’s film Thomas says he now feels “extreme prejudice” against Viet, doubting Viet’s profession of ignorance. “Once you’ve see the fruit of your work turn into a murder weapon,” Thomas says, “It is difficult to say, I am a filmmaker and will carry on making films.”

As Chatterly noted, Casper Harlan explained his mother Kristina Söderbaum ’s participation in Jud Süss by saying that his mother’s “strengths don’t include her intellect or her analytic abilities,” and, “She had no idea what she had done there.”

According to Chatterly, “We see sons [of Viet Harlan] who would rather have their mother known in public as stupid rather than guilty of knowingly participating in Hitler’s criminal regime. It is interesting to note that the granddaughters state unequivocally that she [their mother] is not stupid.”

In Chatterly’s view, ‘it may have been productive for the filmmaker to ask what exactly determines whether an individual is an anti-Semite or not, but the question was not asked.”

Two of Viet Harlan’s daughter’s married Jewish men, in what Chatterly referred to as “an attempt to escape their association with the perpetrators and attach themselves instead to Germany’s victims.”

Meoller’s film also shows viewers Harlan’s son Kristian who claims, “Film has always been subverted into propaganda. These days, [consider] all the war games and films... sponsored by the American military.”

In Chatterly’s opinion, Kristian is very bitter and “intent on minimizing the crimes of Nazism by comparing Germany to contemporary America.”

In analysing the responses of Harlan’s descendents, Chatterly said:

“[In the film] we see the first generation defined by deceit and denial and therefore completely unrepentant about their individual roles and responsibilities in the criminal state that was Nazi Germany, [We see] the complex spectrum of opinion amongst the second generation, and the disconnection, dissipation, and apathy of the third generation who are tired of the burden of the past and feel no personal responsibility for it.”

There is a clip in Moeller’s film which shows Kristine Söderbaum in a 1973 television interview, remembering that she was horrified when her husband Viet agreed to make Jud Süss, even though, Söderbaum insisted they couldn’t have known in 1939 that “it would be used in such a way.” The film, she said, “ruined our lives.”

Chatterly, however, told the viewing audience that she completely disagreed with Söderbaum’s statement.

‘I disagree; what ruined their lives was losing the war. Unfortunately, very few of these people, including the children and grandchildren, would have had any difficulty with Jud Süss-or its depiction of Jews-if Germany had succeeded in its war of European conquest and Jewish annihilation,” she said


Alexander Freund, a history professor at the University of Winnipeg of German ancestry, said that Moeller’s film is portrayed as a documentary, using the technique of “contemporary witness.” But it falls short because it “asks us to accept the words “of those family members interviewed in the film as being “objective ‘truth. But, as Freund added, the words of the children and grand-children are “self-serving,” but the film maker almost never interrupts his interviews with penetrating questions.

Freund said, in analysing the “self-serving” words of Harlan’s family members “Catherine Chatterly has done what Moeller should have done in his film.”

Freund also said that many members of Harlan’s family “portray themselves as victims,” something he said was more common amongst “Germany’s middle and upper classes.”

In a similar vein, Stephan Jaeger, from U of M’s Department of German and Slavic Studies, noted that the film doesn’t examine the effect of memory.

“The film never answers whether Harlan was right or wrong when he says [in his memoirs] that he was forced to make Jud Süss,” he said.


Another issue raised by a member of the audience was the fact that the film offers no images of concentration camps, or historical flashbacks.Were the horrors of the Holocaust adequately addressed?

In Chatterly’s view, “The film assumes a certain amount of knowledge from audiences who do not necessarily have that knowledge, and will not have that knowledge in the future. We have people being interviewed without context, and that will be a big problem [in the future]...The viewer can’t address whether the Harlan family members are victims, or the degree to which their statements are self-serving.”

Chatterly indicated that in her view, the remarks of a couple of Harlan’s granddaughters show they have failed to fully comprehend the horror of the their grandfather’s film. Granddaughter Nele Harlan refers to Harlan’s work as “cheesy” or “banal.” Alice Harlan, says “It’s full of caricatures, I find it grotesque.” These descriptors minimize the potent anti-Semitism of Jud Süss, and show “they don’t get it,” said Chatterly.

Jaeger added, that this lack of historical context shows again that “the film is not investigative.”

As Chatterly added some of Harlan’s descendents ask viewers “to believed that Harlan and Soderbaum had no idea what kind of regime they were working for and no idea about the nature of the film they were making, or how it would be used to support Nazi ideology.”

However, as Chatterly noted, there are many historical facts that undermine that claim. As she stated, by the time Jud Süss was released into German theatres in September 1940, Germany’s Jews had been deprived of their status as citizens for a full five years and were t excluded from all aspects of German society.

“Kristallnacht was already almost two years old, in which 267 synagogues were destroyed, 7,500 businesses vandalized, 91 Jews killed and 6000 Jewish men rounded up and sent to concentration camps-all in full public view...Germany had carved up Poland, and was in the process of establishing Jewish ghettos in its major cities. It sealed the Lodz ghetto already in May, and Warsaw would be created in October....It would be only another nine months before Hitler committed to the decision to annihilate European Jewry.”

Freund noted that the film chooses not to tell the viewers what happened to Dora Gerson, a Jewish woman who was Viet Harlan’s first wife.

“Their marriage only lasted for 2 years and Gerson and her second husband escaped to Holland in 1942, but she was sent to Auschwitz and died in 1943,” he said.


One of the more “tragic and sympathetic” characters in the film, in Chatterly’s view, is Jessica Jacoby, Harlan’s grand daughter, who grapples with knowing that one of her grandfathers (Harlan) was complicit in the death of her Jewish grandfather. Jacoby’s mother Susan committed suicide in 1989 after converting to Judaism after marrying a Jew whose parents died in the Holocaust

Ben Baader, a Professor of Jewish History at the University of Manitoba noted that many German’s today of mixed ancestry are struggling with this type of realization. There is often a ‘great divide” between a “textbook knowledge” of the Holocaust, and personal family memoirs. People may have a textbook knowledge but they “don’t make the link between the textbook and their family.”

Baader said that Moeller’s film has received “mixed “reviews in the United States.

Freund added that it is interesting to note that Moeller, 44, comes from a family that also has a Nazi past.As Moeller told the New York Times, “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.

Rhonda Spivak is Member of the Canadian and Israel Bar Associations, now editing the Winnipeg Jewish Review at

See this article and more at Israel Behind the News

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