“Finally an anti-Semitic film of the kind we could only wish for,” wrote Josef Goebbels in his diary on Aug. 18, 1940. He had just seen the first screening of his pet project “Jud Süss” with Ferdinand Marian playing the lead role in the now infamous Nazi propaganda film. The Austrian actor’s Faustian pact with the Hitler regime is the focus of a new star-studded German film “Jud Süss — Rise and Fall” which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival on Thursday night.
The eagerly anticipiated film, which makes more than a nod or two to Istvan Szabo’s 1981 film “Mephisto,” is the latest German-produced film to deal with the Third Reich. Following in the footsteps of films such as “Downfall” and “A Woman in Berlin,” the filmmakers will be hoping to emulate those films’ international success. However, its reception at the press screening on Thursday was marked more by boos than clapping and many reviews so far have been scathing. Even before the premiere it had already created something of a controversy, with Marian’s biographer berating the filmmakers for taking liberties with the true story.
The original film “Jud Süss” was commissioned by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels in 1939 just a few months into the war. The Nazis were intent on producing a melodrama that would rival those of Hollywood. First and foremost, they wanted a popular historical drama rather than just a blatant propaganda film. The relatively unknown Marian had caught the attention of Goebbels with his stage performance of Iago in “Othello” and, though the actor was reluctant at first, the minister’s methods of persuasion soon convinced him to take the part.
The film was based loosely on a 1925 book of the same name by the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, which explored the fate of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, the Jewish financial adviser to the Duke of Wurttemberg who was hanged in Stuttgart in 1738. But while Feuchtwanger’s book and a subsequent English film starring Conrad Veidt (who went on to play Major Strasser in “Casablanca”) emphasized the tragedy of Oppenheimer’s fate, the Nazis’ intentions were very different.
Their film is a parable of the alleged Jewish threat in Europe, with Jud Süss presented as a manipulator of the Duke’s weaknesses, while various other Jewish characters, all played by character actor Werner Krauss, represent many grotesque anti-Semitic stereotypes. Once the Duke dies, Oppenheimer is arrested and is eventually executed for having sexual relations with a Christian woman, something that would have resonated in Nazi Germany five years after the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, which severely limited Jewish participation in society.
‘He Didn’t Use Jewish Clichés’
Marian was determined to make the central character of Jud Süss believable and sympathetic, explains Friedrich Knilli, author of the Marian biography “Ich War Jud Süss” (I was Jud Süss) from 2000. “What was special about Marian, and why he was so respected, is that he didn’t use Jewish clichés but rather he played him as a person who has been disdained,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1940, was a huge commercial hit across Europe, attracting an audience of over 20 million people and it made a star and, improbably, something of a heartthrob out of Marian. Yet as the war dragged on the film took on a different role in the Third Reich. The anti-Semitic elements gained much more prominence and its purpose became that of pure propaganda. SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the film to be compulsory viewing for all soldiers and guards in concentration camps. And it was often shown to non-Jewish populations in the Nazi-occupied territories.
The notoriety of the film became such that its director Viet Harlan was the only German filmmaker to be put on trial by the Allies after World War II. In the end he was acquitted due to a lack of evidence that he was directly responsibility for the mass murder that his film helped to spur on. “Jud Süss” was banned by the Americans in 1945 and even today it can only be shown in Germany for educational purposes. Sabine Hake, a cultural and film historian at the University of Texas and author of “German National Cinema,” is skeptical about the need to ban the film. “If one wants to be a stable vibrant democracy that can withstand disagreement and a wide range of political views, I think banning films like that only makes them more attractive,” she told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
A Tragedy of Self-Betrayal
And indeed, the film has continued to exert a fascination, with many documentaries and books written about it over the years. Now one of Germany’s most talented directors, Oskar Roehler, has made a film that centers on Marian. Yet both Roehler and script writer Klaus Richter have chosen to make crucial changes to Marian’s story to make it into a tragedy of self-betrayal — changes which have raised quite a few eyebrows.
Perhaps the most controversial decision was to make Marian’s wife Jewish. In reality his wife, Maria Byk, was not Jewish but had previously been married to German-Jewish director Julius Gellner and had a half-Jewish daughter, both of whom emigrated in the 1930s.
In the film she becomes Anna, played by Martina Gedeck of ” The Lives of Others.” A former actress who has hidden her Jewish roots, she is horrified by her husband’s decision to play the role and after the first success at Venice urges him to leave for America. However, he is sucked in by the high society life and sexual conquests available to him, they become further estranged and eventually she is sent to a concentration camp. Knilli says that it was “absolutely wrong” to make her Jewish, and accuses Roehler of making the changes to increase his chances of getting an Oscar.
‘You Can’t Simply Falsify the Facts’
Knilli, who is emeritus professor of media studies at the Technical University of Berlin, also objects to the way the filmmakers present Marian’s career as nose-diving and then show his eventual suicide upon hearing that his beloved Anna has been gassed at Auschwitz. In fact Marian went on to make several other films after “Jud Süss” and had recently been told that the Allies were going to allow him to act again when he died in a car crash in 1946.
“It is complete rubbish,” Knilli says. “You can’t simply falsify the facts in historical films. One has to stick to the truth a bit.” Sitting in his office in his Berlin apartment surrounded by the fruits of 30 years of research into Marian, Knilli says that he suggested to Roehler that he “come by and have a look at all this collection some time, because there is a lot of material. But he didn’t make any use of it.”
The filmmakers, however, have been quick to defend their creative decisions. “Our film is a cinema feature film and not a documentary,” says Markus Zimmer, one of the producers of the film. “It is a completely legitimate decision by filmmakers to tell a story in this way,” he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He says that the Anna character is “a quasi-fictional character, who represents the fates of the many Jewish people in the German film industry who were persecuted and who died in the Third Reich.”
For Roehler, the purpose in telling Marian’s story was to show “the human drama.” “We wanted to ratchet certain things up a bit to make his moral conflicts clearer. We make movies and not documentaries, also because we want to depict human feelings,” he told reporters on Thursday. “We are telling emotions. The inner truth.”
A Myopic Debate
Film historian Hake argues that this spat about the film’s historical accuracy is out of date in a world in which there are films about surf Nazis, Nazi zombies, even Nazi porn. “This debate about whether filmmakers take a responsible approach to representing the past runs so much behind the reality of Nazis as a global signifier and it is incredibly myopic and provincial,” she says.
Yet if the filmmakers ditched inconvenient historical details to make a riveting drama, they seem to have failed. The pace drags, the film doesn’t seem to be able to decide if it is a satire or a melodrama and ironically, Tobias Moretti, who plays Marian, an actor who strove to make his Jewish character sympathetic, does little to emotionally engage us. As he sleeps with countless other women and drinks incessantly, one is left wondering why Anna doesn’t simply run off and leave him at the first opportunity.
Stylistically it has much in common with other recent World War II films that have become Germany’s prime cinematic export. It is largely a conventional historical drama, although there are several sex scenes, including a risible seduction by Marian of the wife of an SS officer who shouts “Jew” lustfully as they make love.
Told chronologically in a classic biopic style, we follow Marian’s descent from confident actor and charmer to slovenly drunken loser, interspersed with almost comic turns by Moritz Bleibtreu, of “Run Lola Run” fame, as Goebbels. Just in case we forget we are watching a Faustian drama, there are frequent allusions to the Goethe play, as well as to Gustaf Gründgens, the actor on whom Klaus Mann’s novel “Mephisto” was based.
Still, there are some interesting touches. The film’s palate is almost completely black and white, with splashes of red, making us almost believe we could be watching a film from the period. And the way it recreates many of the scenes from the banned 1940 film is also technically accomplished with Tobetti mimicking Marian’s performance to the last gesture.
However, the conventionalism of the film is somewhat surprising given the director’s status as the enfant terrible of the German film industry. Roehler’s recent films “The Elementary Particles,” and “Lulu and Jim,” have led some to dub him as the new Fassbinder.
History Film Get the International Audience
Yet his latest film has little in common with the intellectually stimulating and avant-garde films of Germany’s New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, when auteurs like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and Alexander Kluge sought to deal head on with the uncomfortable Nazi past of their parents’ generation.
“Jud Süss,” though sometimes in bad taste, instead fits comfortably with the many historical films made over the past 10 or 15 years like “Downfall,” ” A Woman in Berlin,” “Comedian Harmonists,” or “Nowhere in Africa.” These much more commercial films have enjoyed considerable success abroad, revealing an international appetite for stories made by Germans themselves about the country’s difficult past.
“Those films particularly were designed with international audiences in mind”, says Paul Cooke, Professor of German Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds in the UK. “What is interesting is that these kinds of films are getting mainstream multiplex releases, which is something that German cinema hasn’t experienced for decades really.”
“Nazism is a form of branding for the German film industry,” Hake of the University of Texas says, pointing out that “these are the films that play well internationally, that get prizes.” It is after all, these historical films rather than the many more interesting and experimental films set in contemporary Germany that are invariably the ones competing for the best foreign-language film Oscar.
Partly this is because Germans telling stories from the Third Reich have the whiff of authenticity that moviegoers appreciate. “It may be telling you the story we have heard a million times before but it’s got Bruno Ganz (who played Hitler in “Downfall”) speaking German in it,” Cooke says. And the attention to historical detail is also part of their attraction. “You really can see that the ash trays in Hitler’s bunker did actually have swastikas on them. That is the kind of example of fetishization of authenticity that a lot of these films are after. ”
Even if they may not be great art, the fact that a new generation of filmmakers are not shy of tackling these themes could be interpreted as a sign that Germany has matured and come to terms with its past. This new Germany is as capable of making commercial films about the Nazis as any other country.
Bleibtreu, whose turn as Goebbels in “Jud Süss” is at times clownish and at times menacing, says that it is about time that Germans started feeling more free when depicting the Third Reich period. “We have to be able to at some stage free ourselves from this past, even while never forgetting,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Cooke, of Leeds University, says that though many of the recent historical movies may not be intellectually stimulating, some critics in Germany argue that they serve to engage the emotions of younger people who have no direct experience of National Socialism. “Without that emotional working through of the past Germany will never ultimately be allowed to let the wounds of the past heal,” this logic goes. “Should we now be allowed to simply experience the pain in its own right? And emotionally engage with it in order for us to move on?”