Thursday, March 4, 2010

Movie with Abe: Harlan: In The Shadow of Jew Suss

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss
Directed by Felix Moeller
Released March 3, 2010

How much is a director responsible for how others interpret his material? That question is even more resounding when a filmmaker’s work was touted by the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, as an excellent example of how to demonstrate to the German people that they should hate Jews. This portrait of famed German director Veit Harlan, who in 1940 made the notorious film “Jew Suss” and then saw the rest of his career derailed by the association of him with that project, is a fascinating and sweeping analysis of how one man’s seeming refusal to accept or even acknowledge complicity shaped the rest of his career.

Films are often controversial, and that doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t people who adore them in spite of that. Last year, some decried “Inglourious Basterds” because of the vision of vengeful, murderous Jews that could be misinterpreted as true history by some unknowing audiences. Others praised those very elements, and some on both sides championed the positive aspects of the filmmaking regardless of content. Many believe that it is possible to make a great film even if it paints a grotesque picture of true events. D.W. Griffith’s lengthy 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” is considered a classic and an example of excellent moviemaking, yet it portrays African-American characters in a racist and despicable manner. The lines are hardly black and white when it comes to acceptability of content and quality of film.

“Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss” makes extensive use of the diverse descendants of Veit Harlan still alive today (three of his granddaughters are pictured above). Their opinions on their father, uncle, and grandfather are remarkably different, and putting them all together to see how one man lives on in the minds of his offspring is extraordinarily telling. Some defend him as their relative, and others blame him for his material and attack him for not taking responsibility for what he produced. It’s a brilliant decision to give them all a voice since Harlan, who died in 1964, can’t speak for himself. Extensive research doesn’t even seem to reveal everything, and therefore it’s up to the living members of his family to try and piece together his motivations from what they know of history and what they knew of him.

This is a highly contemplative documentary that doesn’t try to take sides and create soapbox positions for its interviewees or the subject of its inquisition. The Harlan family members visit an exhibit about “Jew Suss” to educate themselves about the facts and events surrounding the creation of the film, and the audience follows them as they learn more and consider the implications of what they now know. It’s a starkly serious film that tries to get at the root of a question that can’t quite be answered because the man who could provide some explanation is no longer alive. It’s nonetheless exhaustive in its research and completely interesting in its selection of discussion topics and interview subjects. Harlan’s work may be indeed be controversial, but this retrospective look at his most notorious achievement is not, and it’s extraordinarily well-made.


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