Perhaps the most peculiar sidebar of the popular and critical success of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has been the curiosity over Third Reich film--the notion, explored in that film and explained by the filmmaker, of "Goebbels as a studio head." While serving as minister of propaganda, he directly oversaw the German film industry, which produced copious musicals and comedies but was best known for their works of pro-German, anti-Semitic proselytism, including Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, Fritz Hippler's The Eternal Jew, and Veit Harlan's costume drama Jew Süss.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss profiles that notorious film's creator, the Third Reich's most successful filmmaker, who was later tried (and acquitted) twice for crimes against humanity, so powerful was the hateful message of his best-known work. His story is told primarily through the words of his descendents, the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who have spent their lives coming to terms with who this man was, and what he did.
For his part, Harlan claims in his memoirs that he was forced to make the controversial film; there are varying degrees of disagreement about that. Some of his relations are critics, some are apologists, and some are both. His daughter Maria Korber describes her first viewing of the film thus: "I felt like going outside and puking." His granddaughters, on the other hand, seem underwhelmed; they're not entirely sure why it was such a cause célèbre. But they're also seen reading aloud the letter from Himmler, directing it to be shown to all SS and policemen, and I think we can safely infer that he didn't just like the film for its costumes.
How complicit was Harlan? How anti-Semitic was the man himself? There's no consensus there either. Granddaughter Jessica Jacoby argues that he had to have been aware of the power of his imagery. But Korber trots out the old chestnut, "He had many Jewish friends!" Son Caspar Harlan deems it irrelevant: "The non-anti-Semite is the best person to sharpen the knives." What can be certain, it is duly noted, is that he had no qualms with putting his actress wife into the film. Would he have put the woman he loves front and center if he considered it such a vile project? Harlan viewed himself a victim in the years after the war, and he fell out of favor, though he continued to make a living grinding out "sentimental and gloomy melodramas." His real legacy, it seems, was the name he left his children with.
Director Felix Moeller generously sprinkles in clips, from not only the film in question and the rest of Harlan's filmography, but horrifying newsreels from the era and home movies of the well-to-do filmmaker and his family. The abundance of footage is helpful; aside from those clips, the film is basically an assemblage of talking heads, and Moeller's attempts at getting out of that box (such as corny shots of relatives sitting contemplatively on beaches) don't really land. However, Marco Hertenstein's excellent score keeps our interest piqued, as does the compelling nature of the story at hand.
As intriguing as the details and discussions of the film itself may be, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is most fascinating as a tricky examination of their difficult family dynamic. "There's something in the psyche of our family," one of them notes, and they're right--some disown him, some embrace him, some don't know what to make of him. His son Thomas is an outspoken critic of his father, causing other members of the family to speak more scornfully of Thomas than of Veit. These are complex, these familial issues, and they branch out and spread; early on in the film, I thought I recognized a niece's name, then shrugged it off as coincidence. Turns out it wasn't--his niece is Christiane Kubrick, the widow of Stanley Kubrick. Late in the film, she says she took her husband to meet her uncle. Kubrick, she recalls, was "shaken" by the experience. That's saying something.