While the name Leni Riefenstahl still lives in infamy, even among those not well-versed in film history, Veit Harlan, one of the Third Reich’s most successful and prized filmmakers, remains something of an unknown internationally. In Germany, however, the name Harlan is nearly as recognizable as Goebbels, the man responsible for making Harlan’s most notorious film Jew Süss mandatory viewing for all members of the SS Nazi organization. Harlan is, in fact, the only artist of the era to be tried for crimes against humanity, and it was his 1945 film, Kolberg, that Quentin Tarantino used as the basis for the propaganda film shown in the final act of last year’s Inglourious Basterds.
Combining rare archival and personal footage, film clips, and interviews with surviving family members and historians, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss attempts to gauge the rippling effect Jew Süss has had by examining specifically how large it looms over the Harlan family. The deep feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and bitterness running from generation to generation are captured in the Harlan children’s responses, but each member of the family, down to the third generation, seems to have a different way of dealing with the notoriety of the Harlan patriarch. Sons Thomas and Caspar have both been involved in activist causes — Thomas as a filmmaker, Caspar with environmental groups — but still feel the responsibility to atone for the sins of their father. On the other hand, Harlan’s other son, Kristian, expresses his deep disapproval of Thomas for speaking out publicly against their father. Yet despite believing that the feelings about their father should remain within the family, Kristian’s discomfort, embarrassment, and anger is palpable.
Yet while the film does a fine job communicating these various reactions, it does a poor job of providing a meaningful historical context for Jew Süss’ initial release. Aside from stating that the film was remarkably profitable, director Felix Moeller never delves into how effective it was as a propaganda piece or even how it’s regarded today by those outside the family. In focusing so specifically on how the Harlan family has dealt with carrying on the family name, Moeller is able to present an array of emotional reactions, but he does so at the expense of proving scope that would have lent these responses genuine credence and gravitas.
Ultimately, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss is interesting for plunging into the labyrinthine psychological turmoil of the Harlan family, but it focuses too little on the root cause and often digresses into Harlan’s various career achievements rather than providing an in-depth look at Jew Süss. Its emotional core remains distant, and the powerful moments often lack potency; the viewers are left to only guess at why the family members react so differently. Shadows are great in horror films, but here, I’m left wishing for something a little more concrete, a bit more substance to support the reactions presented.