Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 2, 2010

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Just yesterday I learned about a documentary called The Ritchie Boys that amounts to a real-life version of Inglourious Basterds. It tells the story of Jewish paratroopers who fought behind Nazi lines during WWII. As a companion piece is the astonishing documentary on Veit Harlan, Nazi Germany’s most famous film propagandist next to Leni Riefenstahl opening at the Film Forum in N.Y. tomorrow. Titled Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss, it is directed by Felix Moeller, the son of renowned director Margarethe von Trotta who has a movie on Rosa Luxemburg to her credit. Moeller, who earned a doctorate in history from the Free University in Berlin in 1994, interviews the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of the man widely regarded as Goebbels’s favorite. Indeed, Harlan’s 1945 epic Kolberg was the basis for the Inglorious Basterds film-within-a-film Stolz Der Nation.

Jew Süss, made in 1940, is set in the 18th century and is based on historical events involving a Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who was one of the Duke of Württemberg “court Jews” and despised by the masses who found him a convenient scapegoat for the Duke’s misrule. In Harlan’s movie, Süss becomes a grotesque arch-villain. So effective he was in turning the character into a stereotypical receptacle of hatred that Heinrich Himmler laid down the law that all cops and SS members had to see the movie.

Interestingly enough, I read a novel about 10 years ago based on this character by a German-Jewish novelist named Lion Feuchtwanger who was militantly anti-fascist. The novel was recommended to me by Michael Smith, a comrade from my Trotskyist youth, who said that it had references to tax farming, a function carried out by Süss that went back to the middle ages. I have been interested in tax farming ever since I learned that my last name Proyect meant “counting house of a tax farmer” in Yiddish. (Feuchtwanger also wrote a play based on the novel that can be read here.)

Veit Harlan always defended himself as being forced to make such movies, even when he was charged with war crimes. We learn from one of his children that the judge who ruled in his favor was the same one who during WWII sentenced a Ukrainian woman to beheading because of a petty crime.

His oldest son was a staunch Hitler Youth and initially collaborated on screenplays with his father before turning radically against him, even setting fire to movie theaters that showed Veit Harlan’s postwar films as the press notes for the documentary relates. It adds:

In the early years of the Federal Republic, he fought former Nazis in high positions. In 1948 Thomas moved to Paris, later becoming a Nazi-hunter in Poland who delivered documents for thousands of war-crime proceedings. Himself a director of several powerfully political films, he was also an anarchist and Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, the darling of Rome’s glitterati and a close friend of actor Klaus Kinski. He remembers many pleasant moments with his father; but Jew Süss he calls a “murder instrument.”

Veit Harlan always insisted that he had nothing against Jews. Believe it or not, he said that some of his best friends were Jews and that he even had a Jewish doctor. But of most interest in deciphering his eventual transformation into arch-Nazi propagandist, his first wife Dora Gershon was a Jew who left him for a Jewish man. She died in Auschwitz in 1943. One of his daughters explains his anti-Semitism as being personally grounded in this affront that he took bitterly.

Ironically—or not so ironically—all of his daughters eventually ended up marrying Jews. One said that she did it out of a sense of obligation to Hitler’s victims but adds laughingly that the marriage was a disaster and ended soon.

But the most interesting Jewish connection was from his niece Christiane Harlan who married Stanley Kubrick after playing the lone female role in Paths of Glory. Kubrick became so fascinated by Veit Harlan that he wanted to make a film about the anti-Semite director even though he was Jewish himself. Notes for the project still exist apparently. Christiane Harlan remembers introducing Kubrick to her uncle. The great American director fortified himself with a large glass of vodka for the occasion.

It is hard to imagine anybody a better job of weaving family drama, art and politics than Felix Moeller. The movie is not only a triumph of story-telling about a haunted family; it is also very much a portrait of German society that is still trying to purge its Nazi past. The very fact that Harlan’s younger relatives have all repudiated his values should indicate that the Goldhagen thesis about evil Germans should be put to rest once and for all.

Indeed, it is not too hard to see Veit Harlan’s sins as those of opportunism rather than ideological commitment. He put his career above everything just like the average commercial Hollywood director. It would not be that hard to imagine any of a number of American directors making a deal with the devil as the contradictions of capitalism continue to drive the nation increasingly insane. With people like Glenn Beck ruling the airwaves, we can certainly conceive of American directors turning out fascist propaganda especially if the price is right.

3 Comments »

  1. “American directors making a deal with the devil…”

    You mean like Elia Kazan?

    Comment by MN Roy — March 3, 2010 @ 8:26 pm

  2. Actually, Kazan had politics. Veit Harlan is much more like Stephen Spielberg.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 3, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  3. […] an anti-Semitic film that was totally at odds with Feuchtwanger’s much more nuanced presentation. In 2010 I reviewed a documentary titled “Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss” about the film’s director Veit […]

    Pingback by Three Documentaries | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 8, 2016 @ 7:13 pm


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