“In the history of the cinema, the German director Veit Harlan occupies an especially ignominious position,” writes Larry Rother in the New York Times. “It is his name that is attached to ‘Jew Süss,’ perhaps the most notoriously anti-Semitic movie ever made, a box office success in Nazi Germany in 1940 that was so effective that it was made required viewing for all members of the SS. But what motivated Harlan to write and direct such a film?” Felix Moeller’s “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,” which examines the man behind the film, attempts to answer that question. It begins a two week run at New York City’s Film Forum today.
Slant Magazine’s Nick Schager: “Using home movies, archival footage, and tellingly edited clips from Harlan’s various films, Moeller swiftly and efficiently contextualizes Harlan’s specific place and role in the era, aided by a German film critic who gives insight on the inherent conservatism of the director’s entire oeuvre. ‘Harlan,’ however, doesn’t dig quite deep enough into a critical appraisal of its subject’s work, a shame given that discussions of these films often take precedence over the documentary’s more pressing issue at hand: the means by which ancestors have coped with Harlan’s heinous work.”
“All of the Harlan children and grandchildren seen here concur that Süss was used as a ‘murder weapon,’ but they disagree over whether or not the filmmaker intended it as such,” writes Karina Longworth in the Village Voice. “Was Harlan—who often cast second wife Kristina Söderbaum as an Aryan goddess, embodying ‘purity, unspoiled nature, and idyllic romance’ and inevitably tainted by outside forces—truly sympathetic to the Nazi cause? Or was he a gifted, passionate filmmaker who could only practice his trade by sucking up to Goebbels?”
Pop Matters’ Cynthia Fuchs: “The family’s responses echo others regarding the rise of the Reich, that individuals were ignorant or forced into silence or compliance, rather than actually subscribing to Nazi doctrine. The film appears to undercut this defense when it pointedly cuts to a scene from Jew Süss, in which the wicked Jew insists in a courtroom that he was forced to commit his crimes. But for the most part, the documentary refrains from making an explicit argument as to Harlan’s—or German filmgoers’—guilt, and instead uses the family members’ responses as examples of disparate and unmeasurable effects.”
“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,'” writes Eric Monder in Film Journal International. “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!”
“Harlan” “which, as it toggles between the political and the personal in a brief 99 minutes, only ends up skimming the surface. But even the skimming is largely interesting and thought-provoking, and of course very bleak — no more so than with the clips from the original ‘Jew Süss,’ which was conceived as a hate film and exploited as a weapon of murder,” concludes the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis. James van Maanen: “What the film finally accomplished, for me, is to engender a bit of a desire to view in its entirety the actual Jew Süss to find out exactly what kind of experience Harlan offered to his more-than-willing-to-watch German public.”