Judge Victor Valdivia is still haunted by horrific mistakes he made in his past. He'll never buy parachute pants again.
The untold story of the notorious Nazi filmmaker.
The tagline for Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss promises a documentary that's substantially different from the one it actually delivers. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it is a confusing and slightly frustrating one. The story of Veit Harlan is a remarkably interesting one and Harlan does, to a degree, cover the important points. It's just that the main focus isn't so much Harlan himself as it is his family and descendants, meaning that Harlan is really a film about how one man's crimes affect his family for generations. While that's not a bad idea for a film, it isn't really the one the marketing and cover art promise. The untold story remains, for now, still untold.
Who was Veit Harlan? During the 1930s, he was Germany's most popular film director, responsible for some of the country's most beloved melodramas. His biggest claim to notoriety, however, occurred after the Nazis came to power and he was commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, a film buff and admirer of Harlan's work, to direct a film explicitly designed to incite anti-Semitism. The film Harlan made, Jud Süß (1940), in which the Jewish title character lies, cheats, steals, tortures, murders, and rapes a Christian woman, depicts every gross anti-Semitic stereotype so blatantly that audiences who saw it would frequently chant anti-Semitic slogans. It was the most popular film of the year in occupied Europe and was seen by millions; SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that all SS and Gestapo officers see it at least once, presumably to inspire them. After the war, Harlan was the only filmmaker tried by Germany's de-Nazification courts. Although he was acquitted (twice), the stigma of Jud Süß never left him. He continued to make films in Germany after the war but he never gave any convincing (or even coherent) explanation about why he made the film, only claiming that he didn't want to. By the time of his death in 1964, Harlan's other career accomplishments had been completely overshadowed by Jud Süß, so whatever he had hoped to gain by essentially selling his creative integrity (not to mention his soul) to the devil clearly wasn't worth it.
Harlan addresses some of the major issues surrounding Harlan's career and does give a fairly comprehensive biography. What it doesn't do, surprisingly, is really discuss Jud Süß itself in any particular detail. This is actually by design. In the liner notes to the DVD, director Felix Moeller explains that he has no interest in examining whether or not Harlan was (as he sometimes claimed) forced to make the film, since so many other German artists (particularly Leni Riefenstahl) made identical claims. That's certainly true, but it still would have been worth seeing more about how the film was made. Were Harlan and the film's actors coerced, as stories claim? Are there any similarities at all between the real historical figure that the title character is based on and the character in the film? It's probable that Harlan was lying when he sometimes claimed that he made the film under duress, but why not investigate these claims and confirm or debunk them once and for all? There are many stories that would have been interesting to hear, but they remain untold, even here.
Harlan's focus, instead, is on Harlan's family and how they have chosen to deal with the ignominy of his decision to make Jud Süß. Since Harlan was married three times, this family tree is complex and even fractious. One son became an ardent Nazi hunter; his critiques of his father almost cross the line into outright visceral hatred. Another son refuses to discuss his father other than to snipe at the son who criticizes him. Two of his daughters ended up marrying Jewish men and it's unclear exactly what he thought of that. His grandchildren know him only as a distant memory (if that) and sometimes refuse to acknowledge his relation to them. The most significant aspect, however, is that none of them can seem to agree on the degree of Harlan's guilt. Some attempt, however uneasily, to justify Harlan's crime by insisting that he was forced by Goebbels to make the film and really felt no personal animus towards Jews. Others lay the blame squarely on his shoulders and insist that he should have directed even a bad film rather than an undeniably effective one. What emerges is a portrait of a family that has been savagely divided because of Harlan's actions and it's this, Harlan argues, that stands as his true legacy. It's a damning argument that the documentary depicts convincingly, but without really explaining just how and why Jud Süß was made, it seems incomplete. Again, had Moeller really examined the veracity of Harlan's many claims about Jud Süß, he could have helped the surviving family members come to more accurate conclusions. After a certain point, seeing these family members repeat the same arguments becomes a bit tiresome, so the documentary certainly could have taken the time to be a bit more investigative.
It would have been interesting if the DVD came with extras that addressed these issues, but sadly the extras that are included are rather meager. There's a Q&A with Jessica Jacoby (11:23), one of Harlan's granddaughters, that is at least worth seeing. She is thoroughly unforgiving of Harlan, refusing to let him off the hook at all, and her conviction is intriguing to see, although for the most part she merely repeats much of what she says in the main feature. The interview with German film historian Alexander Kluge (48:08), on the other hand, is a snooze. He has little of interest to say and no interesting way to say it. Avoid. At least the anamorphic transfer and stereo sound mix are both satisfactory.
Ultimately, Harlan is a documentary worth seeing for anyone interested in Nazi history. It isn't, however, as thorough as it might have been. The story of how Veit Harlan's family is still struggling, decades later, to pick up the pieces of the shattered past he left them is indeed compelling and Harlan does do a reasonably good job of telling it. It does, however, feel incomplete because the story of the making and significance of Jud Süß, which is equally compelling, is deliberately shortchanged. Perhaps someone will make a definitive account of how and why Jud Süß was made and received, because Harlan, sadly, isn't it.
Guilty of not telling the full story, but let off with a fine because it's still a fascinating documentary.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Bonus Interviews
Review content copyright © 2010 Victor Valdivia; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.