Guaranteed to offend several constituencies (including maybe even film archivists), “Jew Suss: Rise and Fall” — German maverick Oskar Roehler’s spin on the making of one of the most notoriously anti-Semitic Nazi pics, and the fate of its lead thesp, Ferdinand Marian — looks to get all-over-the-map critical reaction, depending on individual perspectives. Recalling the risk-taking Roehler of yore (“Silvester Countdown”) rather than the Roehler who made the award-winning “Elementary Particles,” and dominated by a grandstanding perf by Moritz Bleibtreu as propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the pic looks set to rise and fall in different markets, and not even enter some.
While sticking pretty close to the production facts of the 1940 movie “Jew Suss” — which world preemed at that year’s Venice Film Festival, winning praise from a young critic named, uh, Michelangelo Antonioni — the script, largely written by Karl Richter (“Comedian Harmonists”) but also credited to Roehler and producer Franz Novotny, goes the usual route of inventing and compositing characters and events, as well as making Marian’s wife Jewish for extra dramatic juice.
So far, so normal for a biopic. It’s Roehler’s overall approach that’s most likely to get under the skin of those looking for a serious, considered film about a title that’s still more heard about than seen (and still banned in Germany). The whole yarn is reinvented as a ’40s-style meller, with at times almost monochrome, heavily chiaroscuro lensing, plus exaggerated perfs and emotions, and a large helping of irony.
If auds can block out any preconceptions or sensitivities, on this level, the picture is an often highly entertaining ride, with Goebbels acting like some possessed, old-style Hollywood studio mogul as he charms, cajoles, threatens and harangues like the Fuehrer himself. Bleibtreu’s perf, marbled with borderline Mel Brooks-style comedy, is such a dramatic tsunami that when he’s offscreen, the movie sags. Given Roehler’s imagined universe, and the force of Bleibtreu’s physical presence, it hardly matters that the thesp wouldn’t pass for the real Goebbels on a dark night.
Original draft of the script — inspired by a bio of Marian, plus material on “Jew Suss” helmer Veit Harlan and Goebbels’ diaries — began with Marian’s childhood. The finished film plunges straight into 1939 Berlin as Goebbels spots the relatively unknown Marian (Tobias Moretti) in rehearsals for “Othello” and applies first charm, then outright blackmail — Marian’s wife, Anna (Martina Gedeck), is an Austrian Jew, and the couple have been secretly sheltering a Jewish actor, Deutscher (Heribert Sasse) — to convince him to take the lead role in what Goebbels claims will be “Germany’s ‘Battleship Potemkin.’ ”
Marian, though not Jewish, is doubtful, and Anna appalled, but there’s a vain, actorly side to him — nicely conveyed by Moretti — that yearns for the fame the film will bring. To salve his underlying guilt (the pic’s German title is “Jew Suss: Film Without Conscience”) and also save his family, Marian accepts but plans to give a strong perf that will secretly undermine its anti-Semitic message. Goebbels, obsessed with making a quality production rather than “cheap propaganda,” supports him against the more simplistic approach of helmer Harlan (Justus von Dohnanyi).
However, after the pic opens to huge success, Goebbels realizes he’s been conned and takes lethal revenge. This portion of the movie telescopes and twists the facts considerably, as Roehler releases the brakes in several over-the-top sequences — one of which includes a cameo by Gudrun Landgrebe.
As the conflicted but shallow and womanizing Marian, Tyrol-born thesp Moretti (largely from TV) holds his own even against Bleibtreu with often subtle, if hardly moving, playing; Gedeck catches the ’40s meller side in a (mostly) dignified performance that also leaves the heartstrings untouched. As the collaborationist Harlan, whose own fascinating story is barely developed, von Dohnanyi has few chances to make an impression — one of the script’s main dramatic weaknesses.
Production design and duds are fine on a budget that looks sizable but not extravagant, and Roehler’s decision not to shoot in lavish widescreen further enhances the period meller feel. Some half-dozen sequences from the 1940 pic are nicely re-created, and the final sequence features material from the original.