When it comes to Nazi German cinema before and during World War 2, Leni Reifenstahl is the gold standard for propaganda film. However, there was one filmmaker, Veit Harlan, who made some of the most notorious pro-Nazi films, one of which was required viewing by Hitler’s SS. Documentary filmmaker Felix Moeller examines the life of the man via his movies and through the eyes of his family in “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess.”
Like most film history buffs, I am eminently familiar with the works of Leni Reifenstahl and the impact they had on the world in the 1930’s. Sadly, though, I have to admit I know nothing about Veit Harlan and his propaganda films. Filmmaker Moeller attempts to correct this oversight with “Harlan.”
Combining archival film footage, excerpts from Harlan’s films and many interviews with his wife, children and grandchildren, Moeller chronicles the life of the man during the most tumultuous time for Europe. Harlan came to high acclaim in Germany with his patently propagandistic 1940 film, “Jud Suss,” went on to make some of Germany’s most heinous anti-Semitic films and was a favorite of Joseph Goebbels.
While the film excerpts show Harlan’s dedication to making films for Hitler’s regime, the interviews with his family tell different stories. His children, especially son Tom, are critical of their father and disdain his dealings with the Nazis. His grandchildren, though, are far more supportive of their grandfather with their attitude of “what’s the big deal?” These very different opinions, though, tend to confuse things, muddying the waters over Harlan’s guilt or innocence. Was he a willing player in the Nazi propaganda machine or was he a dupe forced to make his anti-Semite films?
“Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suess” does show us bits from the all but unknown, outside of Nazi Germany, films of the auteur, making this the draw for us buffs. In the end, though, it does not decide if Harlan was evil or innocent, even as it proclaims him the only filmmaker for that regime to be tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. It does make me want to see “Jew Suess” in its entirety. I give it a B-.
Writer/director Felix Moeller interviews two generations of the extensive family tree left by Veit Harlan, the now largely forgotten German film director who was one of the only artists ever charged with crimes against humanity. He was cleared - twice - for that one propaganda film whose title is now more well known that its creator in "Harlan - In the Shadow of Jud Süss."
This is both an interesting and frustrating documentary. More the exploration of German post-war guilt as it personally affects two different generations of one family than an analysis of Veit Harlan's films and how "Jud Süss," a period piece about a conniving rapist Jewish financier, promoted the Nazi agenda, the documentary fails to address a number of questions which it raises. For example, Stefan Drössler, the film historian Moeller employs to comment on the artistic and historical nature of Harlan's filmography makes the claim that he was once Germany's most popular director, but Moeller never asks why Leni Reifenstahl's fame carried on while Harlan disappeared into obscurity.
The family tree is articulated via a graph by Harlan's granddaughter Alice, who tells us how she discovered her grandfather's picture in a college text book and that when her history teacher asked her point blank if she is any relation, she denied it and leaves the class in tears. Alice, the daughter of Veit's eldest son by his second of three wives (he had no children with his first wife, a Jewish singer/actress), is in the minority within the third generation in regards to the strength of her reaction to the association. This may be because her father, Thomas, was her father's loudest critic, even after working with him on post-war films. He, in turn, is criticized for his public condemnations by his half-brother Jan, son of Harlan and his third and most suited wife, the popular actress Kristina Söderbaum ("Jud Süss"). Söderbaum's views are presented in vintage interview footage.
Along with Thomas, his sister, Maria Körber, is one of Harlan's most used interview subjects. She has a softer view on her father, stating that he was not an anti-Semite and, indeed, had many Jewish friends, the family a Jewish doctor, but she does not completely absolve him. In a story repeated within both Harlan's second and third families, Maria married a Jewish man who had lost everything in the Holocaust against all better judgement. The marriage was a disaster, but its motivation was Veit's legacy, an attempt to atone. Jan and his family, including three daughters, have become nuclear activists. Another granddaughter notes her mother's suicide, but does not tie its cause to her grandfather.
Another notable interview subject is Stanley Kubrick's widow, Christiane Kubrick, Harlan's niece. She relates how Kubrick prepared to meet her notorious family, then said the meeting made him feel like Woody Allen, a Jew times ten.
Moeller does the usual mix of talking heads, all within interesting and natural environments (Alice, in Paris, speaks French whereas another grandson, one of the most distanced from his past, lives in Italy and speaks that language), with archival newsreel footage and clips from a number of Harlan's films. He bookends the documentary with many of the family members visiting an exhibition on the work of Veit Harlan. But while Moeller's work is certainly interesting, his emphasis on how a filmmaker's work has haunted his family over the years over the filmmaker's work itself has the odd result of making one want to see more of Harlan's work, perhaps not his desired objective. His 1942 film, "The Golden City," won two awards at the Venice Film Festival, including Best Actress for his wife. "Harlan - In the Shadow of Jud Süss" is being shown at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but surprisingly, as a standalone engagement.
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10 | Video
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