As one of the most notorious helmers of the Third Reich, Veit Harlan has spawned a near industry among academics dissecting his films. Felix Moeller’s terrific docu “Harlan — In the Shadow of the Jew Suess” cleverly shifts the discourse and concentrates more on the director’s family, subtly exploring questions of guilt and filial devotion while keeping the man’s monstrous legacy front and center. Positive reviews heralded a focused April opening at home with guaranteed strong ancillary, but international arthouses plus fests of all stripes should also have a popular and critical winner.
Harlan’s 1940 costumer “Jew Suess” (the title is usually translated without a definite article) was one of the key anti-Semitic tracts produced under the gleeful watch of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The film preemed at the Venice Film Fest and did boffo biz, reportedly racking up 20 million theatergoers in Germany and an additional 20 million in the rest of Europe.
Once the Third Reich fell, the film was singled out as an especially heinous piece of propaganda, and Harlan became the only director to be prosecuted for complicity and crimes against humanity.
Harlan was acquitted after two trials, and though he spent the next two decades vociferously denying any ideological affinity to Nazism, the taint of “Jew Suess” never wore off him or his third wife, star Kristina Soederbaum. Though Harlan never became a member of the Nazi Party (the only prominent helmer to do so was Hans Steinhoff, director of “Hitlerjunge Quex”), his protestations of being an artist concerned only with his art were about as convincing as Leni Riefenstahl’s.
With this history as background, docu helmer Moeller (“The Verhoevens”) explores how this poisoned inheritance shaped Harlan’s descendants. Best known is Thomas Harlan (subject of a 2007 docu by Christoph Huebner), who’s spent his career working to counter his father’s legacy. In the words of Thomas’ first cousin Christiane Kubrick — Veit’s niece and Stanley Kubrick’s widow — he’s ruined his life trying to repair some of the things his father destroyed.
While Thomas confronts the guilt and the ramifications of his father’s complicity in Hitler’s regime, many of his siblings can’t deal with the disparity between the father they loved and the willing tool of Goebbels’ propaganda machine, so they unsuccessfully wrap themselves in the notion that ambition, rather than a propensity toward Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism, led him to create films like “Jew Suess,” “The Ruler” and “Kolberg.”
Moeller doesn’t look for recurring motifs in Veit Harlan’s films, though this would have reinforced thematic affinities with the ideals of National Socialism. While it’s clear the descendants are deeply divided on how to handle their legacy, their fractured relationships and ambiguous acceptance has become a metaphor for the German nation as a whole.
The sole non-family member interviewed is film historian and archivist Stefan Droessler, who puts Harlan’s output in context, even though Moeller avoids making comparisons with other films of the period.
Expert use of clips, homemovies, newsreels and occasional historic interviews with Veit Harlan and Soederbaum enhance things, and Moeller’s own stance is apparent through clever editing, especially when Harlan’s protestations of innocence are followed by a clip from “Jew Suess” in which the evil Jew claims he was only acting on orders.
Marco Hertenstein’s music needlessly overdramatizes, especially in the beginning, but its sparing use doesn’t affect the docu’s overall intelligent tone.
Recent announcements that Israeli helmer Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort”) is planning a Veit Harlan pic, as well as talk of a film by Oskar Roehler, should make Moeller’s docu even more timely.