Leni Riefenstahl has long been the poster child for filmed propaganda during the Nazi era. She's the one German director whose name is recognizable to today's audiences. But Riefenstahl was primarily a documentarian. There were also plenty of fiction film directors during the war years who pimped the Nazi cause under the guidance and approval of Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. One of the most successful ("successful" defined as "best at spewing heinous anti-Semitic trash") was Veit Harlan, the subject of director Felix Moeller's fascinating documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss. Moeller's primary target, however, is not Harlan's life and career, although his biography is well covered. Instead, as the title suggests, he concentrates on the effect Harlan's most notorious film, 1940's Jew Süss, had on the generations of family members who came after him. A similar approach was taken by director James Moll in his devastating 2006 documentary Inheritance. Here, the pain is spread thinner by virtue of Harlan's three marriages and subsequent children and grandchildren, all of whom deal with (or don't deal with) their family heritage. This open therapy session-slash-doc is a film festival and PBS-type item worth seeking out, especially since Harlan's legacy has surprisingly intersected with two of the modern era's most iconoclastic directors.
According to Moeller, Veit Harlan's movies were seen by over 100 million people and Jew Süss accounts for about 1/5 of that total. Jew Süss is considered by academics a key film in the Nazi canon. The narrative loads up on the usual stereotypes: the nomadic Jewish main character has a hooknose, traffics in money and jewelry and chases non-Jewish women. Hitler himself noted Harlan's work and Heinrich Himmler was so impressed by Jew Süss he required all SS and German police officers to see it. The movie was a hit upon its release, but opinion turned after the war. Harlan was tried for crimes against humanity, but acquitted. He spent years claiming he was not a Nazi and that he was only trying to make for-hire work as professional looking as possible (in a cheeky move, Moeller connects that dialogue with a clip from Jew Süss wherein the doomed Jewish protagonist claims he was "just following orders."). But there are some members of Harlan's family (including one of his ex-wives) sympathetic to his flaccid assertions of party innocence. In keeping with the doc's main theme, though, the strength of Harlan's case takes second billing to the sometimes-rickety coping mechanisms of family members forced to live with the curse they inherited. Most deluded is Veit's son, Caspar. His claim that his father was merely an apolitical "artist and just got carried away" is the height of delusion. Some argue Veit was coerced into making Jew Süss, a nice try except the movie starred his third wife, Kristina Soderbaum, and it's impossible to imagine anyone being forced against their will to create an anti-Semitic propaganda film for a hated government yet still put your own wife in it.
As befitting a former researcher, Moeller has packed his doc with German newsreel footage, vintage photographs, home movies and clips from Harlan's films (including 1945's Kolberg, which Quentin Tarantino used as the basis for the Nazi propaganda film, Nation's Pride, featured in Inglourious Basterds). Recently shot footage, though, has a distracting digital look and the music is sometimes a bit much. Otherwise, Moeller has a wonderful documentary career ahead of him. One of the unique storytelling challenges here is keeping the family straight. Harlan was married three times (ironically, his first wife, Dora Gershon, was a Jew later killed in Auschwitz). Between his last two wives he sired five children who then gave him eight grandchildren. Early on, Moeller has Harlan's granddaughter, Alice, draw out the family tree in black marker on construction paper. It helps. (Maybe they'll print it out and include it with the DVD.) That family tree includes Veit's niece Christiane Harlan, the future wife of Stanley Kubrick. The late director's personal life was such a mystery that one of the (guilty pleasure) highlights of the film is Christiane relating her husband's thoughts on marrying into such a notorious family. This is interesting not because his thoughts are insightful, but because we're learning something new about one of the cinema's greatest and most spotlight-averse artists. All other family members interviewed seem forthcoming and none are nakedly jockeying to create the most distance between themselves and their ancestral contribution to the Nazi cause. That's the horrible, unfortunate beauty of Moeller's approach. No one can blithely dismiss his or her own father (or grandfather) for his transgressions, no matter how heinous. None of these people asked to be related to a Nazi filmmaker, but they must come to terms with Veit's contribution to the Third Reich. On one end is Caspar, who fools himself by insisting his father "spoke so derogatively about the Nazis...he can't have been one." On the other end is son Thomas, who so rejected his father's work that he became a Nazi hunter in Poland. Most of the remaining children have navigated themselves into a reasonable middle ground. Daughter Maria "couldn't imagine that my father had done this" while another married a Jew after the war as a way of making amends. All these voices coalesce to form a somber, informative study in guilt management that mirrors Germany's own post-war identity. Indeed, in his later years, Harlan claimed even he was a victim of the Nazis. And even if that's true (which it certainly is not), some victims are less innocent than others.
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Director/Screenwriter: Felix Moeller
Producers: Amelie Latscha
Running time: 99 min.
Release date: March 3 NY