Monday, February 21, 2011

Jud Süss (1940)

Jud Süß aka Jud Süss aka Jew Suess
Director: Veit Harlan
Germany 1940
98 min
Starring: Ferdinand Marian, Heinrich George, Kristina Söderbaum, Werner Krauss, Malte Jäger and Eugen Klöpfer, among others.

One of the most notorious anti-semitic propaganda movies of all time, Jud Süss. It was highly popular in Europe when it was released, 10 million Germans saw it and another 10 million in the rest of Europe, and it earned director Veit Harlan the 1943 Universum Film Archive award. Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum (not one of our greatest national prides) was immensely popular, and remained that way for several years to come. Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered all members of the SS and the police to watch the film.

Veit Harlan (right) and Ferdinand Marian's widow during a court case in 1948.

Then the war ended, and the view of Jud Süss took a 180 degree turn: Veit Harlan was twice charged of crimes against humanity, but was acquitted when claiming that he had just followed orders. The actor that played the title role, Ferdinand Marian, died in a traffic accident in August 1946. In September, Heinrich George, who played his highness Karl Alexander, died during an appendectomy in a Soviet concentration camp. Veit Harlan died in his home in Capri, Italy - his wife Kristina Söderbaum died in Germany 2001. Two of Veit Harlan's daughter changed their last name when going for acting careers.

Now the sale of Jud Süss on DVD is prohibited in Germany, France, Italy and Austria. The copyright holders, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, only allows screenings in explanatory contexts, such as in school for educational purposes or in museum exhibitions.

Now it's only natural to become curious. What, indeed, can be so upsetting about this film to cause such controversy? A lot, I realized after watching it. If one were to delete all Jewish references, keep all characters religion/race/whatever neutral - if it would have just been regular good vs. bad guys - this would have been a pretty decent film, and masterfully filmed too. And that's exactly what is most upsetting about the film - it having such appealing qualities while being an anti-Semite campaign on its own. There were obviously dire consequences to the showing of, and acceptance of, this film - to the vast disadvantage of the already vulnerable Jewish community - but to what extent we will never know. However, we should look closely on this film for that very reason. (I think it's insane that it's banned in some countries. Everyone should have access to history and learn from it.)

Yes, Jud Süss is actually based on history. Vaguely. Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was a Jewish banker and financial planner for Duke Karl Alexander of Württenberg in Stuttgart (taken directly from Wikipedia) in southern Germany. Being a powerful man who had a great influence on the Duke he made a lot of enemies, and when the Duke died he was charged for a hell of a lot of crimes (probably were some of them taken from thin air, who knows). He was executed in 1738 and left to hang in a cage for six years. You know, to set an example to anyone who may have planned to make a similar career choice.

However, when Nazi Germany were to interpret the story, Süss Oppenheimer was made into a greedy, sneaky, filthy, megalomaniac of a man with a taste for groping innocent Aryan women. The story seems to rather be based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion rather than either the 1827 novella or the 1925 novel. Interestingly enough, the Brits made a film adaption in 1934, Jew Süss with Conrad Veidt in the title role, and that film is instead condemning anti-Semitism.

The best way to give an idea of what a film is like is to offer a lot of screenshots, dialog and a brief explanation of the plot. As for how bizarre this film is, I am confident that my readers are intelligent enough to understand that without me adding a lot of obvious comments. I'll just add a few here and there where it feels fun to.

We begin with Karl Alexander undertaking an oath to serve his country and his people. Then we cut to the romantic couple of the day, Dorothea Sturm (Söderbaum) and Faber (Jäger), playing and singing at the piano, naïvely oblivious to what horrors are yet to come with the introduction of the next character: Süss Oppenheimer. He is introduced as a wealthy man living in a Jewish neighborhood (I bet there were a lot of those left in Germany anno 1940).

After showing off some pearls and other riches, and making sly facial expressions, we understand that Süss is planning to manipulate his way to power by making the Duke rich. And if you ever wondered how Jews look like when villainously chatting about strategies to achieve money and power, according to this film they look like this:

Süss shaves off his beard and dress a little more fashionably. But when Faber first sets his eyes on Süss, he instinctively knows that he is but a Jew in disguise.

But of course, the Duke can set that whole Jew-thing aside, as long as he gets riches. As a nice little fade from a pile of gold coins to dancing girls at a ball illustrates:

Ta-daa! The Jew gold turned into something physical that the fat, old Duke loves. That's the charm with propaganda: keep it simple and clear, then you'll get your message through.

Soon of course, the Duke is in debt to Jew Süss. Being a kind soul, Süss offers a way out of his debt: He wants the authority to maintain the roads of and bridges of Württenberg for 10 years. He adds tolls and taxes for their use, and a percentage of those incomes goes directly to the Duke. Greed and pride wins, and Oppenheimer gains authority on the cost of the hard working citizens. This will eventually anger enough people to demand the deportation of Oppenheimer.

One could write a 30 page assignment on this film and everything that is thwarted with it. However, I believe in the power of images. Let's move to the decadence aspect of the "Jud Süss problem" - he introduces ballets, parties and gambling, and a lot of young girls. At one point he introduces the Duke to a couple of ladies that are "not yet 18".

Süss Oppenheimer himself has however fixed his eyes on the pure, innocent and blonde Dorothea Sturm. Here comes screenshots of his seduction, which she manages to flee from. Later on in the film (see film clip), he extorts her into exchanging sex for the freedom of her now husband Faber and her father.

Now, Kristina Söderbaum was famous for her many drownings in film, and was therefore nicknamed "The Water Corpse", or Reichswasserleiche ("Drowned Girl of the Reich"). So of course, that's the way Dorothea reacts when Süss has raped her. (In my opinion, I actually thinks it looks like she longs for his passion too, but I might be over thinking things.)

This is it for the people of Württemberg. Coincidentally, the Duke has a heart attack and dies. All there is to do now to form a posse and catch Süss for execution in front of the whole town. The film ends with the banning of Jews being reinforced, and the exclamation that it will remain that way.

The last scene is, regrettably, pretty awesome cinematically. The camera moves around, zooming in and zooming out. The scene takes place outside in the snow, the camera cuts between different angles in pace with Süss' pleads for mercy.

It looks really good. And, as I stated before, it's quite problematic that it does. It's hard to comment on a film like this. It's like trying to decide whether or not Hitler was a good painter, or if Kim Jong Il has a good taste in clothes. Okay, the latter one may not be so hard to decide, after all. Anyway, I hope this post gave something to those of you who haven't had a chance to see the film. But to it, if you do get the opportunity. One can't fully comprehend the mentality behind propaganda films if one never sees one.

I can recommend the documentary Harlan - In the Shadow of Jew Suess (Feliz Moeller, 2008), which tries to explore what the hell that man Veit Harlan and that woman Kristina Söderbaum were thinking when contributing to a film like this. It features mostly interviews with Veit Harlan's children and grandchildren, who reflect about how Jud Süss has affected their lives, and completes their stories with home movies Veit Harlan made.