Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss, a documentary by Felix Moeller, available now on Netflix.
You’re a top German director with an adorable young starlet of a wife (think Reese Witherspoon with chubbier cheeks), as well as a taste for romantic melodrama, and you’re asked by the Minister of Propaganda to make a dramatic feature with an anti-Semitic theme. Do you walk away, knowing that future film funding will be difficult to acquire? Do you go ahead and make it, but do a lousy job on purpose? Do you make it the best movie you can, because you’re driven as an artist and believe it’s possible to keep politics out of the equation? After all, even Shakespeare commited an act of anti-Semitic caricature, in the person of Shylock; are artists bound to moral choices, or are they commited only to self-expression?
And what do you do in the years that follow, when you are one of the few artists charged and later acquitted for having committed a crime against humanity, but the world seems convinced of your culpability?
Many of these same questions about art, propaganda, and personal responsibility inspired my novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour. No wonder, then, that I was so swept up by this true story, told with great intelligence, empathy, nuance and sensitivity, by German documentarian Felix Moeller. Until recently, I’d never heard of Moeller or his subject, Veit Harlan, but I was so impressed with this film that I’m recommending it to anyone who shares my interest in the time period and in artistic/ethical dilemmas in general. Beyond those issues, it’s simply a great film about family. The reverberations of one man’s career choices are shown in the lives of his children and grandchildren, who have struggled under the Harlan legacy.
Harlan — The Shadow of Jew Suss (2008; distributed in the U.S. in 2010; I found it on Netflix this week thanks to my mother-in-law’s recommendation) tells the story of the Third Reich’s most popular — and now, mostly forgotten — movie maker. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was actually more famous than Leni Riefenstahl, another documentarian who was taking cues from Minister Goebbels.
Veit Harlan made romantic tear-jerkers seen by tens of millions of Europeans, including “Jew Suss,” a crude anti-Semitic film that was required viewing for the SS. It’s been banned in Germany for years, and some members of Harlan’s own family hadn’t seen the film until recently, but its reputation cast a shadow over several generations. It’s the time given to these family member’s reactions that makes this documentary stand out. Two children of Harlan’s ended up marrying Jewish spouses (neither marriage succeeded). One of these daughters converted to Judaism and later committed suicide. One son became an environmentalist, seeking redemption in anti-nuclear activism. Another son became an exceptionally forthright filmmaker, speaking out against his father’s own ethical missteps– a public stance that at least a few other family members frown upon. The three granddaughters shown in the film are mostly baffled by how cheesy and banal Harlan’s notorious “Jew Suss” film was. The youngest generation seems to reject personal guilt by association, but they do embrace responsibility — at least in the form of remembering and continuing the dialogue about art, propaganda, and the consequences of our actions. I think all of the family members were incredibly brave to appear in this documentary. They’ve done a great service by being candid and thoughtful, resisting platitudes, vitriol, defensiveness or easy answers. And I greatly admire Felix Moeller for giving voice to so many shades of interpretation, which continue after the documentary’s end in several post-film interviews. If only most of us were willing to think and speak so openly about the collision of personal and public history, including the dark and irreconcilable parts.