Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Family Living "In the Shadow of Jew Süss"

Stories involving families living under the shadow of a strong-welled patriarch have always interested me.  My own father was a larger-than-life individual who still exerts a considerable influence upon my family even though he has passed away.  Maybe that's one reason why I have always related to the Ewings on "Dallas," and also another reason why I was so fascinated with Felix Moeller's excellent documentary "Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss" (2008), available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.  The film recounts the life and career of Veit Harlan, one of Nazi Germany's most prominent filmmakers.  With Joseph Goebbels' support, Harlan directed a number of films during the 1930s and 1940s whose underlying purpose was to espouse the ideals of Germany's National Socialist party.  Many of these films starred his Swedish-born wife Kristina Söderbaum, one of the most popular films stars in Germany whose blonde looks purportedly exemplified Nazi Germany's "Aryan" ideal of beauty.

The most notorious of Harlan's films was "Jew Süss" (1940), a historical costume drama about the activities of a malevolent Jewish businessman, whose success is now widely credited with helping to fan the flames of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.  After World War II, Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity by the Hamburg Criminal Chamber of the Regional Court, and was acquitted.  Harlan spent the remainder of his life directing feature films in West Germany, but on lower-budgets, with much less acclaim, and marked with considerable public protest and resistance, than what he was used to during the war.  He continued to maintain until his death in 1963 that he was merely following orders from Goebbels and that he was forced to make these propaganda films for the Nazis to protect himself and his family.  He remains a figure of controversy in Germany.

What fascinated me the most about "Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss," is how Moeller presents this story as an epic family drama that spans generations.  In addition to archival footage and family home movies, much of the film consists of interviews conducted with close family members of Harlan, including his children, grandchildren, and niece and nephew.  His niece, Christiane Kubrick is the widow of Stanley Kubrick.  She appears to be ashamed to be related to Harlan, and relates anecdotes as to how Stanley Kubrick was shaken when he met her family for the first time, because of how friendly and civilized they appeared to be despite their past Nazi association, and how he wanted to make a film about that time period that never came to fruition.  One of the most compelling sequences in the movie is the footage depicting Harlan's grandchildren visiting a museum in Germany about their grandfather and watching a screening of "Jew Süss."  Through no fault of their own, these young people are haunted by the actions of their grandfather more than half a century ago and are trying to come to grips with it.  Even though Harlan has been gone for more than four decades by the time this documentary was made, he still has a profound influence on his family's lives as they work to try and make sense of Harlan's career and legacy, and what it means to their lives.

His oldest child, Thomas Harlan, became a leftist writer and filmmaker who devoted his life to helping track down Nazi war criminals and documenting the Holocaust.  Thomas is one of the most vocal critics of Veit Harlan in his entire family.  Much of this has to do with a sense of righteous justice and shame for his father's association with the Nazis.  Throughout the documentary, Thomas builds very rational arguments as to why he does not believe his father's assertions that he only made the films because he was forced to do so by Goebbels.  Thomas makes the case that, if that were true, why did Veit Harlan make his wife, the film star Kristina Söderbaum, appear in these films?  As Thomas states, Kristina Söderbaum was Swedish and therefore, "a free woman," and she was under no compulsion to comply with Goebbels.  As Thomas concludes, Veit Harlan's casting of his own wife in these movies leads him to believe his own father had no moral doubts or issues with collaborating with the Nazis to produce these propaganda films.  He did it on his own free will.  At another point in the documentary, Thomas is seen commenting that, if a person knew that something they made using their talents would be used as a vehicle that would lead to immense suffering and destruction, wouldn't they--out of shame--refuse to ever exercise those talents again?  Thomas is appalled by the fact that his father returned to making movies after the war, despite the fact that one of his films "Jew Süss" helped stoked the flames of anti-Semitism and helped to perpetuate the Holocaust.  In Thomas' opinion, his father should have had a sense of humility about his actions and refused to ever make a film again.

But that's one point of view.  On the other extreme are the testimonies of his other children Maria Körber (an actress and acting coach), his sons Caspar (a filmmaker and environmental activist) and Kristian (an architect and industrial designer).  To varying degrees, these other children come to the defense of Veit Harlan.  Maria admits feeling a sense of shame for her father's association with Goebbels to such a degree that she married a Jewish man, whose family perished in the Holocaust, in an effort to absolve herself of the guilt she feels.  One of the most vivid moments in the documentary is Maria's description of the time she watched "Jew Süss" at a special screening when she was an adult.  The revulsion she felt when watching the film, coupled with the realization of the effect it had on the German population, made her sick to her stomach.  And, yet, Maria still clearly loves her father and feels a sense of loyalty to defend him.  She describes how one Jewish friend vehemently hated her father, and she understood those feelings clearly, but at the same time was unable to completely separate herself from her family.  She also refutes her brother Thomas' assertion that she changed her last name to Körber in an effort to distance herself from her father.  She claims that the stage name of Körber was forced upon her by her agents, who felt unable to represent her with the taint associated with her family, and started putting her mother's surname on all of her contracts without her permission.

Her half-brother Caspar defends his father and mother, saying that he believes his father's claims that he complied with Goebbels to make these films for his safety and for the safety of his family.  Caspar proudly declares that he rejected any suggestions made by friends that he should change his last name to avoid being associated with his father.  Caspar makes the cringe-worthy assertion in the movie that his father wasn't anti-Semitic because he purportedly had many Jewish friends.  (I wonder how many people who watched this documentary rolled their eyes at Caspar when they heard him say this.)  He also defends his mother's participation in these films, indicating that intelligence and perception were not his mother's strong suits.  However, interview footage with Kristina Söderbaum taken in the 1960s seems to refute Caspar's allegation, as she comes across as thoughtful and articulate, and fully aware of the consequences of her actions.  In fact, Söderbaum appears to express a level of guilt and acknowledgement of complicity that is lacking in most of her family members, particularly her son Kristian.

Kristian comes across as the least sympathetic of all of Veit Harlan's children.  As unfair as it is for me to say, I didn't like him at all.  He defiantly tries to rationalize his father's movies, saying that the United States continues to put out war games and propaganda to stir up nationalist sentiment, which is an argument I find weak because, no matter what you say about this country, it still allows for open discourse and dissent to a degree that was unimaginable in Nazi Germany.  There are enough Americans who are vocal critics of their own country's policies to refute Kristian's assertion.  Also, no commercial filmmaker in the United States is subsidized by the government to the degree that Harlan was by the Nazi party in Germany.  In fact, watching "Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss" allows me to see the full extent of how ridiculous it was for critics to pounce on Kathryn Bigelow for directing "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) by comparing her to Leni Riefenstahl.  While it's true that Bigelow may have been granted access to government documents to help her shape her film's storyline and narrative, there is no suggestion that her film was government-commissioned or -financed, nor that she followed any government directives on the content or messaging of her film.

In the documentary, an interview with Veit Harlan conducted in the 1960s is shown where Harlan recalls how Goebbels heavily influenced the post-production and editing of his film "Kolberg" (1945), advising him to edit out sequences that would have considerably darkened the tone of the movie.  There is no evidence to suggest that Bigelow complied with similar orders from United States government officials in making "Zero Dark Thirty."  Also, Bigelow never enjoyed the level of government endorsement and approval for her film the way Riefensthal and Harlan enjoyed for theirs.  Throughout the documentary, memos from Nazi officials are cited indicating how pleased they were with Harlan's work as a filmmaker, and how his movies should be shown to Nazi personnel in order to help educate them on issues important to the Party.  In contrast, Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was roundly chastised by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who initiated, and later dropped, an inquiry into the level of cooperation Bigelow may have received from the Central Intelligence Community for the making of her film.  That level of transparency and oversight would be unthinkable in Nazi Germany.

I also didn't like Kristian because of the extent of his blind loyalty to his father.  At one point, Kristian roundly criticizes his half-brother Thomas' repeated public condemnation of their father through the years.  Kristian opines that it is disloyal of Thomas to behave that way, and that if he had any criticisms he should have expressed them privately to their father.  Kristian subscribes to the notion that one does not openly criticize their own family to others, and that it should be done privately within the family.  However, Kristian fails to realize that he's contradicted himself in two ways.  1) After saying you shouldn't criticize your own family publicly but privately, he acknowledges that he never privately criticized or confronted his father over his complicit collaboration with the Nazi Party.  2) He contradicts himself by openly critcizing his older brother Thomas in the course of this documentary.  In essence, Kristian isn't so much upset with his brother Thomas because he publicly criticized their father, but that he did it at all.  Like his own father Veit Harlan, Kristian is a hypocrite who wants to have things both ways and, frankly, he can't.

Probably the most sympathetic family members participating in this documentary are Veit Harlan's granddaughter's Jessica Jacoby and Alice Harlan.  Jessica is the daughter of Harlan's late daughter Susanne Körber, who married a Jewish man named Claude Jacoby.  Jessica Jacoby comes across as one of the harshest critics of Veit Harlan in the whole movie.  She believes that her grandfather was indeed anti-Semitic, because he was angry that his first wife Dora Gerson, who was Jewish, left him for another man, who was also Jewish.  She also blames her grandfather for never properly acknowledging or apologizing for his collaboration with the Nazis and believes that he would have been less harshly judged if he had publicly acknowledged his complicity.  The most moving sequence in the documentary is when Jessica discusses her paternal grandfather, who she never met.  As she puts it (via the translated subtitles on my DVD copy of the film), "My paternal grandfather Artur Jacoby fought in the First World War and thought himself German.  He was proud of the Iron Cross (First Class) he'd won.  He struggled desperately to be allowed to emigrate with my grandmother.  He wasn't allowed to, was deported to Minsk, and was murdered there.  Whilst during that period, my grandfather, Veit Harlan, successfully made feature films for the Third Reich, lived a life of luxury, and profited from the system to the greatest extent possible, he, too, a war volunteer during the first world war.  One of my grandfathers was in the limelight, was controversial and prominent, the other vanished into darkness."  Jessica, in essence, agrees with the documentary's off-camera interviewer when he asks, "So the one (grandfather) made propaganda for the other's destruction?"  She responds by saying, "Yes...You could say that, in as much as "Jew Süss" is a call to prosecute and kill the Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe.  And my other grandfather and grandmother paid for this with their lives."

Alice Harlan, Thomas' daughter, is also another sympathetic figure in the Veit Harlan family tree.  In fact, it is Alice who, at the beginning of the documentary, helps outline the relationships of the various Harlan family members on a white board in her home so that the audience can tell who is who.  A lovely French girl who is a physical therapist living in Paris, Alice discusses throughout the documentary her sense of shame and awareness of being related to Veit Harlan.  She describes an incident when a professor in school confronted her in class about her family heritage, "I once had a history professor who wasn't pleasant by nature, was rather difficult.  She asked me in front of the whole class if I was related to Veit Harlan, my name being the same.  And I said no.  But I was in tears.  I cried and left the classroom.  I said, 'No, he's not my grandfather.'  But it caused me a hardship because then I got called a 'damn Hun.'  That wasn't funny.  And anyway, at college, you feel guilty of things regardless of what they are.  And I'd always refused to find out what had happened or to ask my father, Thomas.  To me, my grandparents were Nazis.  And that's it.  I wouldn't listen to explanations.  But I really felt it.  And I was very ashamed."

Alice comes across in the documentary as an intelligent and sensitive young woman with a heightened sense of responsibility about the family legacy she's been born into, "Everyone tells me it's not my fault, it was my grandfather.  They don't try to understand that it's still my blood.  So perhaps I have some bad blood, too.  When you're young you don't understand.  I'm sick of this burden upon me.  I want to understand, or know about it.  Because even though I wasn't brought up by my father, I think there's a genetic line.  When I have children, I want to tell them about it.  All of the story.  Not just not know about it.  So I want to find out, know all about my grandparents, and all about Thomas' life, so I can tell my grandchildren.  That's my goal.  It shouldn't be forgotten.  It's like when my Jewish patients tell me stories so they don't die out.  The last few of that generation from the Nazi era are vanishing now.  And who'll tell the story then?  It'd be dreadful if it were forgotten."  Because Alice is such a conscientious young woman, there's no doubt that, as far as she's concerned, her family lineage, and the implications connected to it, won't be forgotten if she can help it.

The same can't be said for her cousins Lotte, Nele, and Lena, all daughters of Caspar.  In the documentary, they each state that they thought "Jew Süss" wasn't a good film and cannot see why it had the effect that it had upon the German population it did at the time of its release.  They claim that it's important that they are aware of their family history so they can address the responsibility of it, but say they feel no particular sense of guilt about it.  One of Caspar's daughters, Lena, even says "Of course it'd be great if Grandpa had been a resistance fighter.  But that wouldn't have meant that I'd have been courageous or shown my strength, either.  If I'd had a grandfather who'd sacrificed his life for something it wouldn't reflect on me.  And so, by that token, I don't bear the guilt, either.  It exists, must be dealt with, but it wasn't me who did it."  Normally, I would agree with Lena because objectively I do not believe that young people should be held responsible for the actions committed by their forebearers.  But Lena's comment is almost too neat and self-satisfied for my tastes, considering that the subject matter we are discussing is Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

I got the feeling watching the documentary that Caspar's daughters are too emotionally disconnected from what happened, despite their claims otherwise.  This is disconcerting because I believe that, if the next generation feels absolutely no shame for the actions of their ancestors, than no one has learned anything about what happened, and how to prevent it from happening again.  The difference between Alice, daughter of Thomas (the most vocal critic of Veit Harlan in the family), and her cousins (daughters of Caspar, one of Veit Harlan's apologists) is striking.  Even though Thomas' politics are probably far more Left than I would agree with personally, I do admire his efforts to try and bring Nazi war criminals to justice.  On the other hand, Caspar may tout his efforts as an environmental activist, and reference his family's complicity during the Nazi era as one motivation for his efforts, but it's a pat effort that doesn't really address the lingering issues of his father's actions.  As such, it's not surprising his daughters do not appear to have as good an understanding of their family history compared to their cousins Jessica and Alice.

Of course, I don't have to live with the burden that the Harlans do, because my forebearers never collaborated with people as horrible as the Nazis.  But I disagree with Lena's notion that the actions of your grandfather don't necessarily reflect on you.  My father, who was a child during the Japanese occupation of China, told me a story of how my own grandfather, who was a school official in the small Chinese village they lived in, refused to comply with orders from the Japanese to release children from their classes on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor so that they could march in a parade celebrating the attack.  My grandfather was appalled at the notion of using Chinese children in the village in support of something he felt was abhorrent, and told the Japanese, "No, they have too much schoolwork to cover.  They'll get too far behind if they march in your parade."  As a result, the Chinese schoolchildren never became Japanese propaganda tools.  (In addition, my father fled Communist China in 1949, and left everything he knew behind to start a new life in Taiwan, because he did not want to be part of a regime that he vehemently opposed.  Like my grandfather, he had the courage to stand up for what he believed in.)  Now, I agree with Lena to the extent that my grandfather's courage doesn't necessarily mean that I have that same level of courage and strength within myself.  However, I do believe that the knowledge that someone in my family had the fortitude to stand up for the things he believed him helps inform the decisions I make with my own life.  It doesn't mean that I have the same courage or strength of my grandfather, true, but it does mean that I should at least aspire to those same standards of conduct and behavior for myself.  If I didn't have standards, whether good or bad, to compare myself to, how could I begin to know whether I was making the right choices for myself?

I realize and acknowledge that I am probably judging members of the Harlan family far too harshly based upon what I discerned from watching "Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss."  I have a friend who is the daughter of an actress, and she hates how people on the internet who have never met them will judge and gossip about her family, so it is not my intention to be thoughtlessly sanctimonious, condescending, or judgmental with my opinions.  However, my friend has never tried to put herself out in the public eye and has remained a private citizen, whereas the Harlan family put themselves out there in order to discuss themselves and their family in this documentary.  So, in defense of whatever opinions I've expressed about them, they are purely based on how they've presented themselves in "Harlan -- In the Shadow of Jew Süss."  No matter what my opinions may be, I am grateful to the Harlan family for the level of candor and transparency into their lives that they allowed for this documentary.  I found it extremely thought-provoking about issues of personal accountability, especially with regards to artists and filmmakers and the effect their work may have upon the public.  I generally believe in the free expression of ideas in art and abhor any notion of government interference.  However, when it is the government who is commissioning and subsidizing these works of art, one needs to stop and consider the motives behind it, and what the long-term implications would be as a result.  Unfortunately for the Harlan family, this level of self-awareness never occurred to Veit Harlan as they continue to pay the consequences for the thoughtlessness of his complicity to this day. 

1 comment:

  1. (1) This sounds like a film worth seeing.

    (2) Anyone who suggested that Bigelow was comparable to Riefenstahl does not know a thing about history.

    (3) Evil is evil is evil, but certainly we should have the opportunity to see similar documentaries about the evils of Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Communist propagandists, most of whom make Harlan look like a piker.


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