Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Harlan invites viewers to share the angst of the Harlan family, the descendants of the director of the notorious anti-Semitic tract, Jew Süss. Only those who feel sorry for Viet Harlan’s poor relatives will appreciate Felix Moeller’s indulgent, misbegotten documentary.

March 3, 2010

-By Eric Monder


filmjournal/photos/stylus/127855-Harlan_Md.jpg
No doubt many a critic will extol the virtues of a film that supposedly exposes the harms of Viet Harlan’s commercially popular, anti-Semitic 1940 production, Jew Süss. What these scribes will miss is that Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss’ narrow focus on the Harlan family inadvertently achieves an opposite purpose: humanizing a man as responsible as any Nazi leader for hatred towards German Jewry. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl this is not!

Box-office prospects are always good for a film about Nazis, Jews, and the power of the cinema. As much as any historical documentary, Harlan has all the elements of audience and critical success.

It’s too bad, then, that Felix Moeller didn’t take Ray Muller’s more combative approach from The Wonderful, Horrible Life. In that 1994 film, Muller confronts Riefenstahl herself, catching her in her web of lies about seeing her work (e.g., Triumph of the Will) as mere art, not propaganda, and her hollow claims not to have been part of the National Socialist party (as if the lack of official party affiliation should excuse her). By the same token, Viet Harlan may not have been a documented party member, but his work on behalf of the party was profound.

Most of Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss covers the Harlan family’s feelings about being heirs to Viet Harlan. They describe varying degrees of regret, but some of that anguish has more to do with historical misunderstandings surrounding Dad. Eldest son Thomas Harlan is the most troubled by his father’s legacy, while some of his siblings—and their children—are more ambivalent, even attributing artistic over-ambition to Harlan’s taking on such Third Reich super-productions as The Ruler (1937), Kolberg (1945) and, yes, even Jew Süss. Moeller almost never interrupts his interviews with penetrating questions (as Ray Muller did), so the Harlan family members set the agenda and most of them forgive their patriarch before we (the viewers) have begun to understand who the man was in the first place.

The one scholar interviewed, Stefan Droessler, offers a more objective view, but even he constrains himself, as Droessler is a self-described archivist, not a critic. Other than Thomas, one gets little sense of outrage from anyone on camera, and the most peculiar and disappointing story is told by Christiane Kubrick, Thomas’s first cousin and Stanley Kubrick’s widow: she tells of the Jewish director and the Nazi helmer’s first meeting, which is more comically awkward than dramatically fiery.

In filmmaking terms, Moeller’s interviews, shot on high-definition digital video, aren’t interesting to look at or particularly well-ordered. Thus, the highlights of Harlan are the film clips, especially for those who have never seen Nazi-era propaganda. Though the seductive power of what Susan Sontag once called “Fascinating Fascism” is evident, it is rarely discussed. At other times, Moeller makes shrewd editing juxtapositions, including one transition from an archival clip of Viet Harlan protesting his innocence to a scene from Jew Süss in which it is clear the Jewish characters are portrayed in a despicable, stereotyped light.

But such moments are few and far between. Whatever Moeller was trying to say with Harlan, the results are sadly muddled at best.


Film Review: Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss

Harlan invites viewers to share the angst of the Harlan family, the descendants of the director of the notorious anti-Semitic tract, Jew Süss. Only those who feel sorry for Viet Harlan’s poor relatives will appreciate Felix Moeller’s indulgent, misbegotten documentary.

March 3, 2010

-By Eric Monder


filmjournal/photos/stylus/127855-Harlan_Md.jpg

No doubt many a critic will extol the virtues of a film that supposedly exposes the harms of Viet Harlan’s commercially popular, anti-Semitic 1940 production, Jew Süss. What these scribes will miss is that Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss’ narrow focus on the Harlan family inadvertently achieves an opposite purpose: humanizing a man as responsible as any Nazi leader for hatred towards German Jewry. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl this is not!

Box-office prospects are always good for a film about Nazis, Jews, and the power of the cinema. As much as any historical documentary, Harlan has all the elements of audience and critical success.

It’s too bad, then, that Felix Moeller didn’t take Ray Muller’s more combative approach from The Wonderful, Horrible Life. In that 1994 film, Muller confronts Riefenstahl herself, catching her in her web of lies about seeing her work (e.g., Triumph of the Will) as mere art, not propaganda, and her hollow claims not to have been part of the National Socialist party (as if the lack of official party affiliation should excuse her). By the same token, Viet Harlan may not have been a documented party member, but his work on behalf of the party was profound.

Most of Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss covers the Harlan family’s feelings about being heirs to Viet Harlan. They describe varying degrees of regret, but some of that anguish has more to do with historical misunderstandings surrounding Dad. Eldest son Thomas Harlan is the most troubled by his father’s legacy, while some of his siblings—and their children—are more ambivalent, even attributing artistic over-ambition to Harlan’s taking on such Third Reich super-productions as The Ruler (1937), Kolberg (1945) and, yes, even Jew Süss. Moeller almost never interrupts his interviews with penetrating questions (as Ray Muller did), so the Harlan family members set the agenda and most of them forgive their patriarch before we (the viewers) have begun to understand who the man was in the first place.

The one scholar interviewed, Stefan Droessler, offers a more objective view, but even he constrains himself, as Droessler is a self-described archivist, not a critic. Other than Thomas, one gets little sense of outrage from anyone on camera, and the most peculiar and disappointing story is told by Christiane Kubrick, Thomas’s first cousin and Stanley Kubrick’s widow: she tells of the Jewish director and the Nazi helmer’s first meeting, which is more comically awkward than dramatically fiery.

In filmmaking terms, Moeller’s interviews, shot on high-definition digital video, aren’t interesting to look at or particularly well-ordered. Thus, the highlights of Harlan are the film clips, especially for those who have never seen Nazi-era propaganda. Though the seductive power of what Susan Sontag once called “Fascinating Fascism” is evident, it is rarely discussed. At other times, Moeller makes shrewd editing juxtapositions, including one transition from an archival clip of Viet Harlan protesting his innocence to a scene from Jew Süss in which it is clear the Jewish characters are portrayed in a despicable, stereotyped light.

But such moments are few and far between. Whatever Moeller was trying to say with Harlan, the results are sadly muddled at best.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Citizenfour
Film Review: Citizenfour

Documentary account of how Edward Snowden leaked intelligence to the world press. More »

Glen Campbell I'll Be Me
Film Review: Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

Alzheimer's is given an unforgettably human face here, and that face belongs to a music legend. More »

White Bird in a Blizzard
Film Review: White Bird in a Blizzard

A clichéd indie about a girl’s coming-of-age amidst her mother’s disappearance that, despite a sturdy lead performance by Shailene Woodley, is undone by hackneyed, go-nowhere plotting. More »

Exists
Film Review: Exists

Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sanchez returns to the faux-found footage well and hauls out a bucketful of Bigfoot in this derivative but creepy shocker. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

John Wick
Film Review: John Wick

Retired hit man seeks revenge on Russian mob in an above-average action film. More »

Fury Review
Film Review: Fury

American tanks fight superior German forces in the closing days of World War II. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here