To my knowledge, the only film in Competition at this year's Berlinale to be booed — and vigorously booed at that — was Oskar Roehler's Jew Suss - Rise and Fall (Jud Süss - Film ohne Gewissen, literally "Film without Conscience"), which purports to tell the story of the making of Jud Süß, the notoriously anti-Semitic film, wildly popular in Nazi Germany and beyond following its release in 1940. Pictured up there in all but desaturated grays and browns are Justus von Dohnany as Jud Süß director Veit Harlan, Moritz Bleibtreu as Joseph Goebbels, paying a visit to the set, Tobias Moretti as Ferdinand Marian, portraying, in turn, Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, and some poor fellow who goes unnamed in the photo credits. Roehler's film doesn't see a release until late summer, so let's turn first to Felix Moeller's documentary, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, opening today at New York's Film Forum and running through March 16.
"Veit Harlan started directing just as Hitler assumed power," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "According to the historian Erwin Leiser, in 1933 Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for 'Enlightenment and Propaganda,' used his first address to representatives of the German film industry to enthuse about Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 tour de force that features the oft-copied Odessa steps sequence with its runaway baby carriage. After admirably noting the film's aesthetic quality, Goebbels said that it proved that 'a work of art can very well accommodate a political alignment, and that even the most obnoxious attitude can be communicated if it is expressed through the medium of an outstanding work of art.'"
"How culpable was Harlan?" asks Michael Joshua Rowin in the L Magazine. "Was he a reluctant director arm-twisted into producing ethnic caricatures and calls for anti-Jewish violence; an apolitical aesthete content to work under a murderous regime that allowed him to make pictures; or an out-and-out Nazi as enthusiastic as his superiors in vilifying Jews? What makes Felix Moeller's Harlan - In the Shadow Jew Suss such a compelling documentary despite a by-the-numbers talking head format is the consideration of these possibilities and more through its subject's descendents, a plethora of children, grandchildren, and other family members voicing conflicting speculations and judgments in regard to Harlan as well as varied atonements for the 'inheritance of guilt' passed on by their notorious patriarch."
"The most intriguing member of the immediate family is Harlan's eldest son, Thomas, who was a keen Hitler Youth during the war, and worked with his father after the war," blogs Ian Buruma for the New York Review of Books. Thomas Harlan, the subject of the documentary Wandersplitter (available on DVD from Edition Filmmuseum) and of a long profile in the first issue of Cargo, eventually had a change of heart. Buruma: "As often happened in such cases, he became an obsessive seeker of justice, a Nazi hunter in Poland, a Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, and a lifelong critic of his father. He was the son, who took on the burden of guilt from an unrepentant father. Old and sick himself now, Thomas declares that this burden should never be lifted."
"Mr Moeller, 44, came to the Jew Süss project with an unusually broad set of skills and qualifications," writes Larry Rohter in the NYT. "He has a doctorate in history, has written several articles for scholarly journals on the arts during the Nazi period, served as a historical adviser to feature films, and also directed a pair of other documentaries on German film figures who lived through the Third Reich. In addition, he is the son of a prominent German director, Margarethe von Trotta, and the stepson of another, Volker Schlöndorff. But that does not mean that he exempts himself from the historical burdens that are the subject of his film."
For Nick Schager, writing in Slant, the doc "muddles its address of Harlan's offspring... The sagas of these still-suffering individuals should be the true center of attention, yet Harlan too often proves content to stay at arm's length. The result is a documentary that goes only part way toward truly documenting."
"[H]ow can relatives think clearly and logically about the moral culpability of someone they love, without interrogating that love itself?" asks Karina Longworth in the Voice. "'If the question is, "Who in Germany is guilty?," the fact is, many millions were slayed by us,' Harlan's niece, Christiane Kubrick [Stanley's widow, pictured above in a still from Harlan], says somberly. Harlan's family can go around in circles debating his merits and intentions, but that 'us' cuts to the quick."
More from Graham Fuller (Artforum), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and James van Maanen.
On to the strange case of Oskar Roehler. A few years ago, one of Berlin's city magazines proclaimed him to be the next Fassbinder. That didn't pan out. Many of the German critics disappointed or even infuriated by Jew Suss - Rise and Fall still stand by Die Unberührbare (No Place to Go, 2000) and I find great swaths of Der alte Affe Angst (Angst, 2003) exhilarating, particularly when André Hennicke's onscreen, which is most of its running time. Most of us were eager to pin the failure of Roehler's Michel Houellebecq adaptation, Elementary Particles, on its overbearing producer, Bernd Eichinger, but Eichinger's got nothing to do with Jew Suss, which shares many of the same faults. It's an overly conventional, embarrassingly superficial take on a story that demands far more than Roehler seems able to give.
A man of small stature, Goebbels was nonetheless one of those larger-than-life figures who presents a unique challenge to actors seeking to convey both the effect and the humanity of such a character. At the press conference in Berlin, Bleibtreu referred to the clownish nature of the persona Goebbels created for himself, and yes, he's definitely got that aspect down. But he's on a different frequency altogether from the other members of the cast. That cast includes, it should be noted, the marvelous Martina Gedeck as Anna Marian, the half-Jewish wife that Ferdinand Marian did not, in fact, have — and here, we begin to approach the more serious problem with Jew Suss - Rise and Fall. Jan Schulz-Ojala puts it well in Der Tagesspiegel when he writes that the film "seamlessly aligns itself with that new strand of a German cinema of exculpation which ultimately portrays thoroughly active participants in German dictatorial systems as victims, whether they be the lonely generals in Downfall or the unhappy Stasi officer in The Lives of Others."
There is a difference between revealing the humanity of a character too easily caricatured — a Nazi, say, or even a collaborator — and turning that character into a victim. Roehler seems blind to this distinction. Some years ago, I listened to Slavoj Zizek declare that he never, ever wanted to understand the mind of a Nazi, which is an extraordinarily dangerous position to hold. If you refuse to trace the emergence of the last monster, you won't see the next one coming.
Roehler aims first to map the route Marian took to rationalize his conscience away and then lay out the tragic consequences once it returned — too late, of course. But he and screenwriter Klaus Richter round too many edges off the truth — like Harlan, Marian carried on working for the regime after Jud Süß — and fluff up too many handy fictions for the story they believe poetic license allows. As a result, neither version is served.
Updates: The New Yorker's Richard Brody on the 1940 Jud Süß: "One of the reasons for the movie's success as propaganda is that it's not heavy-handed. Harlan, a competent director of melodrama, creates plausible situations and even finds a certain sympathy in Süss, whose fall is owed not to the fact of his being Jewish but to his desire to assimilate — to repudiate the mores and customs of his forefathers and his people, to improve his lot, to live among 'Germans,' i.e., non-Jewish ones, to presume to rule over them, and, above all, to seek to intermarry. In my note on Felix Moeller's documentary, I allude to the 'cinematic unconscious' that's revealed in clips of Harlan's films, including this one. It turns out that more or less all of Harlan's Jew Süss is the expression of the forbidden, in disguise: essentially all of the crimes it ascribes to Süss could have been ripped from the headlines regarding the Nazis, who dissolved the legislature, formed a dictatorship under the guise of legality, used torture, used fear and force and murder to suppress dissent. Then, when caught, they (as Harlan ultimately did, when tried after the war) claimed to have acted under orders from a depraved ruler."
"No one is entirely satisfied with Harlan's 'just following orders' self-defense," writes Robert Cashill, "or that he fell out with his patron, Goebbels, over the editing of the epic Kolberg (1945), which was the basis for the patriotic film-within-the-film in Inglourious Basterds (the poverty and violence that Harlan wanted to leave in, a fact on the ground for German audience members as the war effort collapsed, Goebbels ordered sanitized). But these served him well enough through two controversial war crimes trials (he was acquitted both times) and allowed him to make more movies, in his same flat, fussy style. Harlan retired to an aerie on the island of Capri, where he's buried. The juxtaposition of its beauty and his notoriety is most startling contrast Moeller offers as his family muddles on."
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