Film Review: Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss

<i>Harlan </i>invites viewers to share the angst of the Harlan family, the descendants of the director of the notorious anti-Semitic tract, Jew S&#252;ss. Only those who feel sorry for Viet Harlan&#8217;s poor relatives will appreciate Felix Moeller&#8217

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.