A disappointing documentary about Nazi propaganda

Thu Mar 4, 2010 9:17pm EST
 
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - A potentially fascinating topic is given a disappointing treatment in Felix Moeller's documentary portrait of German filmmaker Veit Harlan and his infamous 1940 anti-Semitic film "Jew Suss."

Rather than delving deep into its subject, the film loses focus by concentrating on the feelings of Harlan's descendants rather than a deep analysis of the man himself. "Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss" is receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum through Zeitgeist Films. (This documentary is not to be confused with "Jew Suss: Rise and Fall," a German feature about the actor who starred in that film, which recently screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.)

"Jew Suss" was commissioned by no less a figure than Hitler propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Largely unseen today -- it is banned by the German government -- it is a melodrama set during the 18th century in which the central character is a Jewish financier who rises to power by oppression and duplicity. Along the way, he rapes a virtuous young woman (played by Harlan's real-life wife, the popular German actress Kristina Soderbaum), who subsequently commits suicide.

Screened at the 1940 Venice Film Festival, where it received a rave by a young film critic named Michelangelo Antonioni, the film became a huge hit in its native country and was screened regularly for members of the SS and soldiers stationed at the concentration camps.

The documentary focuses largely on Harlan's relatives, including his children, grandchildren and a niece who happens to be the widow of Stanley Kubrick. They express varied feelings about their family heritage in extensive interviews, which clearly are intended by the filmmaker to serve as an examination of the psychological costs the Nazis enacted on German society.

Unfortunately, not much of what the interview subjects have to say is particularly interesting, and the film otherwise fails to delve deep enough into Harlan's life and work (disappointingly few clips from "Jew Suss" are included, for instance).

The director protested to the end that he was no anti-Semite -- one of his wives was Jewish -- and that he made his film only because he was coerced; Moeller signals his compliance with that notion by including a scene from "Jew Suss" in which the villainous central character uses the same rationale. But the documentary fails to provide the necessary depth and context to do full justice to its complex subject.