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The Forgotten: Blood Libel

My Struggle
Are some films best forgotten?
The newly appointed Duke of Württemberg relaxes the laws preventing Jews from entering his city, so that he can borrow from moneylender Suss Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer slowly takes control of the city through the corruptible Duke, and seeks to gain possession of a beautiful Aryan girl, daughter of a town councilor.
I watched Veit Harlan's Jud Suss with trepidation. I wasn't afraid that the movie, a virulently anti-Semitic melodrama made in Nazi Germany in 1940, would corrupt me with its repulsive slant on history. One would have to be a full-blown racist to begin with to be seduced by the film. I was more worried that the mere decision to watch, to show an interest in this piece of damned celluloid, was a sign of moral weakness.
As usual, my voyeuristic impulse got the better of me, and I watched, so you don't have to. As I suspected, the film is a failure as propaganda for anyone not already steeped in anti-Semitism. Rather than starting with Oppenheimer as a neutral character, trusted by the gentile heroes, the film assumes his evil from the start, and shows that all the "right-thinking" Germans already despise him. Even the decadent Duke loathes Oppenheimer, but thinks he can make use of him. This had the reverse of the intended effect on me, making me side with Oppenheimer and do my best to maintain sympathy with him no matter how abhorrent his crimes (murder, torture, rape). So maybe the film was corrupting me, in a different way. It's like a moral black hole, and light trying to escape gets bent from its course.
The historical events distorted in Jud Suss had already received a more sympathetic airing. In the 1934 British film Jew Suss, Conrad Veidt plays Oppenheimer as a hero, storing up political power to end the oppression of his people. Harlan's remake (or unmake?) of the Michael Balcon production not only wrenches the moral compass 180 degrees to make Oppenheimer a slavering villain, it grotesquely steals sequences outright, including the snowfall that greets the title character's death. As Conrad Veidt is hanged in a kind of iron bird-cage, director Lothar Mendes elevates his camera over the crowd as if in simulation of the dying man's point of view. When the screen fades to black, it is death come upon us. The German "re-imagining" (or "de-imagining"?) juggles the same elements to rather different effect...
The film might not be worthy of discussion at all if its aesthetic qualities matched the diabolical standard of its political ones. But it's not only well-made, but actually stylish and impressive, using its high production values with vigour and even wit. As Oppenheimer sprinkles gold coins on a desktop to pay for the Duke's proposed ballet, Harlan dissolves to a high angle of pirouetting ballerinas, their tutus forming bright discs just like the coins. I had imagined that German cinema was artistically crippled by the flight of the best filmmakers to America, but as in France, new filmmakers came through to take the place of those departed. Of course, Harlan is no Lang or Renoir. But he's more than a hack, and he devotes his energy and talent to making the best anti-Jewish porno-propaganda film he can.
The Resistible Rise
The pornographic element is apparent early on, when a cheering woman at the Duke's inaugural parade loses her top, to the Duke's leering satisfaction. One is reminded of all the women who bared their breasts at Hitler, a strange phenomenon hinting at the hidden psychosexual nature of fascism. While the Duke's lechery is an early sign of the inner depravity that will lead him to fraternise with the ethnic other, it's notable that the film invites its audience to enjoy the same erotic spectacle as him. All through the story, in fact, different levels of vice are offered up for the audience to simultaneously tut their disapproval at, and lasciviously enjoy. Marlowe's The Jew of Malta may have inspired this fascinatingly two-faced approach, although the Nazi film never approaches Marlowe's moral ambiguity: except accidentally.
The climax of the film's sinister sexual side is the rape of the innocent Dorothea, played by the director's own wife, Kristina Soderbaum. Oppenheimer has imprisoned the maid's newly-wed husband, Faber (to heighten the horror, we're assured that the marriage is as yet unconsummated) and has him tortured with thumbscrews in a dungeon opposite his boudoir. By waving a handkerchief from the window he is able to stop the enhanced interrogation at will, and makes it clear that Dorothea's submission is his price. Veit cunningly fades out without specifying whether Dorothea gives in or is overpowered, preserving her virtue in the minds of the audience.
What follows is the revenge, as Dorothea's suicide enrages the populace, the town council stages a revolt, and the fat Duke died of a heart attack, leaving Oppenheimer without his single ally. The climax seems to draw a direct line between the angry mob of torch-wielding villagers in the Universal Frankenstein movies and the torchlight parades of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, especially as the hero carries Dorothea's dead body into the town, exactly like the father of the drowned child does in James Whale's German-influenced classic. As Oppenheimer is hanged in an iron cage, amid slowly drifting starscapes of fleecy snow, the camera crane pushing gently through to alight on the faces of the heroic townsfolk, looking on not with hatred but with noble and implacable solemnity, my stomach turned in sympathy with the dangling villain.
A genuinely odd thing about this wretched spectacle is how the story charts the slow decay of a constitutional government. It's this which is the most compelling and convincing aspect of the story, with both modern resonance and an allegorical relationship, surely unintended, with the rise of Adolf Hitler. Oppenheimer is given power in exchange for the wealth he can supply, whereas Hitler was able to offer popularity to a minority government. The road to hell is laid with cobbles of opportunism.
The Protocols of the Elders of UFA
The exact propagandistic purpose of the film is artfully disguised. True, audiences emerging from the cinema were reported to randomly attack passing Jews, so as a mob-rousing piece of dreck it was effective, but this could not have been its primary goal. In fact, the film largely argues for segregation, and it's the allowing of a single Jew into the city that leads to all the trouble. Jews who pass for gentile are considered more dangerous than the obvious kind, and the Rabbi played by Werner Krauss is more cautious and religious than Oppenheimer, but no more honest. The film could best be considered a success in its goals if audiences were made to feel that the Jewish populations of Europe would be best place...elsewhere. The movie does not propose extermination, although it does show the edifying spectacle of a single Jew being publicly executed. But it paves the way for an entire people to quietly disappear.
The People
Leading actor Ferdinand Marian at first refused the role, but Goebbels persuaded him to play the part "emphatically." Marian's lip-smacking relish rendered him unemployable after the war, and his 1946 death in a car crash was rumoured to be suicide.
Veit Harlan, who trained under Max Reinhardt, like Murnau and Lubitsch and Dieterle, went on to make many more films, until his death in 1964. He was the uncle of Christiane Kubrick.
While Harlan's first wife died in Auschwitz, a few years after Jud Suss hit cinemas, his third wife, actress Kristina Soderbaum, survived and continued to act until the early 90s, although leading roles were denied her. She frequently expressed guilt over her work in Nazi propaganda cinema.
The most famous participant in the movie today is Werner Krauss, who achieved immortality at the age of 35 by playing the evil/good Dr Caligari for Robert Weine. A seven year gap in his career from 1943 signals his period of cocooning, followed by a return to starring roles in West German movies.
Heinrich George, the fat Duke, was captured by the Russians and died in captivity. His remains were eventually discovered in an unmarked mass grave, in 1994.
Conrad Veidt, star of the original, noble Jew Suss, survived a Nazi assassination plot and emigrated to America, where he raised money for anti-Nazi causes by playing Nazis in Hollywood thrillers, notably Casablanca.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
I’ve always wanted to see this. From your description much of it sounds like an episode of “24.”
Thank you for watching Jud Suss so that we won’t have to. A few asides: I have a DVD of German documentary called “Wandersplitter” (“Moving Shrapnel”) which is essentially a long interview with Veit Harlan’s son Thomas Harlan, a novelist and filmmaker, along with excerpts from the younger Harlan’s films. Thomas Harlan’s own tumultuous and interesting life seems to have been driven by his father’s refusal, up until a few days before he died, to even consider whether he bore any moral responsibility. (Among other things, T. Harlan cops to having set fire, in the 1950s, to two theaters that were showing Nazi-era Veit Harlan melodramas. Veit Harlan used Jewish prisoners from Poland as extras in Jud Suss. Thomas Harlan says he still has a postcard that his father sent during the filming in which he says how much the Jews are enjoying the experience. (Maybe they did get a few good meals out of it.) Eric Rentschler’s book “The Ministry of Illusion” has some interesting comments about Marian’s role in the 1943 German “Munchhausen” in the light of his identification with Jud Suss. (It also has a chapter on Jud Suss itself, IIRC.)
The difference between Jud Suss and 24? In Jud Suss the torture is carried out by the BAD guys. The Thomas Harlan stuff sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve leafed through Ministry of Illusion but now definitely want to revisit it.
The Thomas Harlan DVD was an inpulse order from the Edition Filmmuseum site that turned out to be pretty remarkable. Also available from Edition Filmmuseum, as a companion piece to “Anders als die Andern”: Veit Harlan’s own “Anders als du und ich” from the 1950s! Which Thomas Harlan refers to in passing as (rough quote) “a terrible film against homosexuals that someone paid him to make.” I guess the old man was just an incorrigible whore.
Wow. I think I can get my hands on both of those. I might skip the feature and go straight for the documentary though. I may have had all I can take of Harlan’s second-hand prejudices.
Katya, Does this DVD documentary have subtitles? Soderbaum appears in Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s KARL MAY (1974). It is available from the Syberberg Foundation with subtitles. Also, was Harlan’s first wife Jewish?
1) I believe the documentary does have subtitles. 2) I believe she was. At any rate, she died in Auschwitz.
I think that’s right — his first wife, from whom he was divorced in the 1920s, was Jewish and was killed in Auschwitz. His second wife (an actress whose name I can’t recall at the moment) was Thomas Harlan’s mother, and Soderbaum was his third wife. I bet Harlan remembered his Jewish first wife when he had to defend himself after the war, the way Emil Jannings remembered that he was part Jewish. I should probably add that the larger portion of the “Wandersplitter” DVD doesn’t concern Veit Harlan directly, although he’s there in the background throughout. Thomas Harlan has done a lot of things that were clearly conditioned by his family background. In the 1960s he did extensive research in the Polish archives which apparently formed the evidentiary basis for a series of Nazi atrocity trials brought against erstwhile pillars of West German respectability. And in the early 50s he was the first non-Jewish German to visit Israel, accompanied by his friend Klaus Kinski.
What a fascinating guy! I met Jan Harlan once, in Korea (!) He seemed awfully nice.
A German filmmaker has made a documentary about Veit Harlan, apparently organized around interviews with his children and grandchildren:
I’m so surprised that your thoughts about the movie are so similar to mine. I live in Germany, and you cannot watch it here without a scholar cramming down a pre-manufactured interpretation down your throats. These interpretations often differ greatly, but each one is supposed to be “the one and only” One weird thing about this movie — is that you can watch it under so many angles. I could talk about that stuff for hours, but the “guided screenings” in Germany only allow for a short talk afterwards. I would also love to read Professor Knillis book about Ferdinand Marian, but regretfully, it is out of print. I used to be a stage actor (minor parts only) and I know that all male actors were concurring for the part of the villain…especially our best looking ones —N.N. and I.W. I understand that there is something very fascinating in playing a “bad guy” — but therer was one main difference: none of our plays was meant to incite hatred…if our Franz Moor was jumping over his father’s body, exclaiming “dead, dead, they cry, dead, finally!” with glee, it was for fun, not to suggests that a certain ethnicity is evil — even if N.N. was a man of some color.
I don’t know anything about the German publication “Telepolis,” but it’s currently featuring a very long two-part article about Jud Süss. (At least, I think it’s very interesting — the German writer insists on writing in German, which I don’t read very well.) Its essential purpose is to argue in favor of ending the German ban on the film, but along the way it gives a detailed history of its production, blowing away much of the excuse-making of the participants, especially Veit Harlan, but allowing room for the unknowns that have to temper judgment of, for example, Ferdinand Marian. He also discusses a number of the things mentioned in David’s original post here and in the subsequent discussion: the Mendes/Veidt British movie “Jew Süss,” the recent documentary about the Harlan family, and the DVD “Wandersplitter.” One of his main points is also made by David: the film’s antisemitism is conveyed by relatively sophisticated means, and so (he argues) Germans really need to be able to see it in order to understand it.
Oops, meant to include a link to the first part of the article. <>
Hi Katya! I read that Artikel too…I like the 2nd part better, and I 100% agree with the fact that showing the public always the same clips does not help. As far as Harlan is concerned…I read his autobiography yesterday — in one setting, you can read it like a novel, and I changed my opinion a bit. He would probably be considered an antisemite by today’s standard, prejudices and all, but not for his times. I also agree with his statement that “without certain additions/cuts the movie would still be anti-semitic, but not inciting hatred”. It is very interesting to read, and it has changed my mind about him a bit. (At first I thought: Opportunist without conscience, jerk without remorse) Yesterday, I discussed the movie with somebody who had never heard about it, and he asked me: “Is this your favorite movie?” I couldn’t answer. I have seen it several times, and I find it very compelling. When I say that all the male actors are very good, I’m not just copying other sources who make similar claims. But…I guess you know the reason(s) why I cannot honestly say “This is my favorite movie — I just love it.”
I recently watched the full version a week ago and agree that it should be seen rather than extracts. Despite the defense by the surviving actors in Harlan’s post-war trial, it is clear from the film that they all delivered 100% non-“walk-on” performances to an anti-semitic film and this includes Marian who clearly relishes the role. Eric Rentschler contributes a good video essay in the DVD featurette section and I must read THE MINISTRY OF ILLUSION. Also, did not Harlan allow his first wife to die in a concentration camp and direct an anti-gay film in the 1950s contrasting with Richard Oswald DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919) starring Conrad Veidt?
I’ll say it again.Looking at a direct Nazi propaganda film classic,whether it is or anti Irish. Pro assistance suicide or anti Semitic,today it is as harmless as looking at a film biography of Jack the ripper or the sinking of the titanic.It happened and you should except it in peace. Looking at this film does nor cause you to do anything that you don’t want to do.If you know what happen behind the camera was wrong, then it can’t affect you. Their was a claim that some children in Austria began to harass some Jewish citizens after seeing this movie ,claiming that the movie made them do it,What an excuse to be bad and try to get away with it .This is a remake of the american Birth of a Nation,The story are subtly similar . Goebbels or Vieht might of saw the d.w. Griffith movie when ti came to Germany, when they were young.either of them remembered it .I’m just guessing
It’s true, people are responsible for their own actions. This is still a nasty film, taken on its own merits though. I’m sure Harlan knew the Griffith film, which was seen by everybody upon release. And it’s quite likely Goebbels would have studied it as an example of propaganda wrapped up in a dumb entertainment package.

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