Sunday, 1 February 2015

Jud Süß - Film ohne Gewissen (4½ Stars)

As a film fan, I've always enjoyed films about films. There's something fascinating for me, as an outsider, to be given a glimpse into the workings of the film industry. This film, released in America as "Jew Suss: Rise and Fall" or simply "Rise and Fall", is about the making of the film "Jud Süß" in 1940. It was a remake of the 1934 British film "Jew Süss", and both were based on the true story of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, an 18th Century Jewish banker. While the British film was a neutral portrayal of events, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the head of the German film industry, decided that it should be remade as a vehicle of anti-Jewish propaganda. He personally overviewed the script and ordered two re-writes, the first because it wasn't anti-Jewish enough, the second because the script was too primitive in its anti-Jewishness. Even though it was a propaganda film he was determined that it should have high artistic value.

Moritz Bleibtreu, an actor I have always appreciated, plays Dr. Joseph Goebbels in what may be the role of his lifetime. Without losing credibility, he switches from being a jovial film lover to ranting as a fanatical hate-monger within seconds. Goebbels hires the Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian to play the part of the Jewish villain. Ferdinand was already a household name after being typecast as a handsome gigolo in a series of films. He felt uncomfortable about accepting the role, but Goebbels pressured him. Ferdinand's wife was quarter Jewish -- which was the minimum percentage required to be classed as a Jew by the Nazis -- and Goebbels offered to spare her in return for his cooperation. Ferdinand's daughter was only one eighth Jewish, as such safe from persecution. Ironically, the usually efficient Nazi regime had made a mistake; the daughter was the child of Ferdinand's first wife, who was completely Jewish.

The film was an enormous success, both at the box office and as a tool of Nazi propaganda. Wherever it was shown there were outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. In 1954 the West German government declared the film to be evil and ordered all copies to be destroyed. (This is shown out of sequence in the film, as if it had happened immediately after the war). However, copies still existed in East Germany, and the film was actively distributed to middle eastern countries to show how evil Jews are. It's common for people to think of anti-Semitism as a product of right wing ideology, but East Germany's Communist government inherited anti-Semitism from the Nazis, and even today anti-Semitism is common among left wing organisations in Europe. The hatred of the Jews has no political colour.

More recently the film has been re-assessed by film critics. Modern scholars have grudgingly admitted that it's a very good film, despite the controversy that surrounds it. It used to be called "the most racist film ever made", but now it's considered to be "the best propaganda film ever made". It's still illegal to sell the film in Germany, but it's allowed to be shown in public, on condition that someone makes an introduction denouncing anti-Semitism before it begins. I haven't seen the film yet, but it's available online, and I intend to check it out soon.

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