Wednesday, March 03, 2010
The shadowy Veit Harlan
There are certain movies that cultures would just as soon forget. In America it's Disney's Song of the South; in Europe it's Veit Harlan's outraging Jew Suss (1940), which is today banned from exhibition on the continent. I saw a few clips in a German history class I took in college and was startled at how blatantly anti-Semitic the film was. But this product of Goebbels' propaganda machine was a hit in this day, sympathetically reviewed by, of all people, then-critic Michelangelo Antonioni. Then again, from a distance, we revere Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, for its filmmaking if not its message.
Still, the cruder Jew Suss is harder to rationalize. While anti-Semitism remains a vexing problem we know longer have to live with the film--but the family of its director, Veit Harlan (pictured), does. Opening today at Film Forum in New York Felix Moeller's Harlan--In the Shadow of Jew Suss is pedestrian filmmaking, the documentary equivalent to Harlan's own stodgy, sentimental pictures, which are shown in excerpts. But Moeller gets into a fascinating subject, one that tantalized Stanley Kubrick, who married Harlan's niece Christiane, who does talking head duty here. How does a family deal with a legacy of shame that persists on the cultural record?
For Thomas, Harlan's son, the answer is relentless activism, and criticism of his father, which antagonizes his family. They prefer to view the matter in perspective. His grandchildren, while aware of the taint, can't quite wrap their heads around the troubling legacy their grandfather's "creaky old movie" represents as a museum showcases his work, safely under glass. No one is entirely satisfied with Harlan's "just following orders" self-defense, or that he fell out with his patron, Goebbels, over the editing of the epic Kolberg (1945), which was the basis for the patriotic film-within-the-film in Inglourious Basterds (the poverty and violence that Harlan wanted to leave in, a fact on the ground for German audience members as the war effort collapsed, Goebbels ordered sanitized). But these served him well enough through two controversial war crimes trials (he was acquitted both times) and allowed him to make more movies, in his same flat, fussy style. Harlan retired to an aerie on the island of Capri, where he's buried. The juxtaposition of its beauty and his notoriety is most startling contrast Moeller offers as his family muddles on.