The Legacy of an Anti-Semitic Film

> koch_march08_harlanposter_post.jpg

Blueprint Film

Before seeing Harlan: In the Shadow of 'Jew Sűss', I had never heard of Veit Harlan, who directed the 1940 movie Jew Sűss. While I don't know for certain, I assume he was responsible for the script in that film which the New York Times' Manohla Dargis described in her review of this picture as "one of the Nazis' most notorious anti-Semitic works." Dargis also stated in her review that when Harlan's film was shown at the 1940 Venice Film Festival, it was "excitedly received."

No surprise when you recall that the United States and most countries in Europe at the time were grossly anti-Semitic. No one rushed in to save the Jews from the assaults by Nazis and fascists which culminated in the Final Solution: death camps. Anti-Semitic acts and violence against Jews were committed not only by the people of Germany and Italy but also those throughout Eastern Europe in Poland, Hungary and even in the Soviet Union as they had in Czarist Russia.

It was Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda under Hitler, who gave Harlan, then the most lauded of German directors, the assignment of creating a cinematic masterpiece drawing the European populace to great heights of anti-Semitic violence and hatred. I thought that role had been played by Leni Riefenstahl who helped the Nazis glorify the Nazi regime with her films Triumph of the Will and Olympia.

Interestingly, after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, both film directors were tried for war crimes and both were acquitted. Why? I don't know, but if helping the Nazi cause were sufficient basis for conviction, almost the entire German nation would have been found guilty. Very few people opposed Hitler openly.

Today things are totally different. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany is probably the most active nation in Europe in terms of condemning anti-Semitism and preventing its recurrence. I met Ms. Merkel when I went to Berlin in 2004 as Chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Anti-Semitism sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She welcomed my delegation with a magnificent speech denouncing anti-Semitism and clearly displaying her strong emotions on the subject. She was shortly to become the chancellor of Germany.

The conference was extraordinarily successful in binding the 55 member nations in their resolve to combat and seek to eliminate contemporary anti-Semitism by enacting civil legislation and educating youth throughout the world of the dangers of anti-Semitism.

Now back to the film. This movie is a one-trick pony. It depicts the efforts of Harlan's children and grandchildren, many who appear in the film, to clear his name from the taint of anti-Semitism. They didn't convince me. His films, the product of his ability to produce "art," added to his reputation as he depicted Jews, as did the Czar's secret police, as threatening to dominate the world and, in the case of Jew Sűss, adding the sexual ingredient of a despoiler who was responsible for the death of a German woman.

I went to see this film, hoping for historical reasons that it would include more footage of Jew Sűss. Although that movie was used primarily as the vehicle for Harlan's descendants to defend him in this documentary, only a few snippets of the actual movie were displayed. One exception in terms of his family's defense was his oldest son who appeared to recognize his father's contribution to the deaths of so many Jews: six million is the number, not mentioned. In any event, I suggest that the comments of Harlan's family today on a 70-year-old movie do not make a film for today.

Former New York City Councilmember Henry Stern said: "The movie consisted mostly of interviews with Harlan's descendants as to how their lives had been affected by their ancestor's fame and subsequent notoriety. Predictably, their reactions varied, with Veit Harlan's son making films to atone for his father's propaganda movies shot for Goebbels. The film would have been stronger if it had more of Jew Sűss in it, although then it might have been illegal to show it in Germany, the country where it is likely to attract the most interest. Holocaust movies remind us of the horror of the events, and the roles that ordinary people played in it. The film is not a great contribution to its genre, but it is fortunate that it was made, so that the cinematic aspect of the monstrous crimes committed by Germany under Hitler is explored."

Presented by

Ed Koch was mayor of NYC from 1978 to 1989. He's credited with restoring fiscal stability to the city and creating affordable housing. He's also a film buff. More

Mayor Koch saved New York City from bankruptcy and restored the pride of New Yorkers during his three terms as mayor from 1978-1989. He restored fiscal stability by placing the city on a GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Practices) balanced budget. He created a housing program that provided more than 150,000 units of affordable housing and created New York City's first merit judicial selection system. Prior to being mayor, Mr. Koch served for nine years as a congressman and two years as a member of the New York City Council. He attended City College of New York from 1941 to 1943. He was drafted into the Army his last year of college and served with the 104th Infantry Division. He received two battle stars and was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant in 1946. He received his LL.B. degree from the New York University School of Law in 1948 and began to practice law immediately thereafter. He is currently a partner in the law firm of Bryan Cave LLP and hosts a call-in radio program on Bloomberg AM 1130 (WBBR). Mr. Koch appears weekly on NY1 television and is the author of ten autobiographical books.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.

More in Entertainment

Just In