In 1940, Veit Harlan directed his most controversial movie: Jud Suss. The film takes various historical liberties, but otherwise depicts the life and death of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, Court Jew to Karl Alexander, the 18th century Duke of Württemberg. Subjectively speaking, it's a very well made film, but its content is quite striking: the Jewish characters are depicted as conniving, power-hungry and lascivious (although the duke himself doesn't come off much better), and various members of the cast and crew found difficulty getting work again after the war was over.

In attempting to mitigate their role in the production, I have heard (although I have no source beyond Wikipedia) that some of the people involved claimed to have been operating under duress. Josef Goebbels, the Reichsminister of Propaganda, was himself very involved in the production of the movie, so the claim is not so unbelievable. My question concerns a feature of the film, and how it may have been analysed critically at the time:

Karl Alexander (played by Heinrich George) is depicted as greedy and lecherous, and it is his moral depravity that causes him to invite Jews back to Stuttgart in order to finance his various entertainments. To do so, he needs to overrule the interests of his advisors, and to their chagrin he amends the constitution in order to deprive them of a voice within his cabinet and to grant sole, unmitigated rule to himself.

When I was watching this, I couldn't help but wonder whether or not the Duke's seizure of power might have been interpreted at the time as a veiled criticism of the Fuhrer. The historical circumstances are quite different, but he too entered office as one of several people who held the reigns, and he too found ways of abrogating the constitution, terminating the republic and becoming the sole power. In the movie, it is "the Jew" who is behind the rise of the Duke, and the film positions the audience in such a way that the abrogation of a constitution and the dissolution of his council are seen as heinous acts.

I was wondering if there are any sources that show that Germans at the time might have felt that this was treading a little too closely to what Hitler himself had done? Furthermore, is there any indication that members of the crew may have used it in their defense after the war? In other words, to suggest that the portrayal of the Duke was a deliberate criticism of the leader of Reich?

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    You certainly meant Württemberg, rather than Stuttgart? – Anixx Dec 5 '16 at 4:05
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    Required reading: heise.de/-3381348 and heise.de/-3381350 – Martin Schröder Dec 5 '16 at 6:17
  • Thanks, @Anixx - I got that information from Wikipedia, and I just assumed that Württemberg was his place of birth. I have fixed it now. – Shimon bM Dec 5 '16 at 9:27
  • Thank you very much, @MartinSchröder. It's going to take me a while to work through those, but a glance through the first one (with the aid of Google Translate) demonstrates that I will find them exceptionally useful. Much appreciated. – Shimon bM Dec 5 '16 at 9:33

I think, no. I think this film's plot was not intended as criticism of Hitler. To understand it one should have idea about Nazi mentality. They did not consider themselves as some tyrants that suppress people but rather a protection of the people from such tyrants who are manipulated by the Jews and uses foreign support to seize power.

Beside this, the character of the Duke and the whole situation is quite typical. When watching this film, I could not get rid of the feeling that the film is about Russian history of the 1990s. The Duke very much resembles Boris Yeltsin. He also was quite a drunkard, there were a lot of expensive festivities at the period, he employed some popularly-hated Jews like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar as economy advisors and ministers (Chubais was the head of the state property committee). When the Supreme Council refused to appoint Gaidar as prime minister, Yeltsin made an anti-constitutional coup and ordered tanks to shoot on the Council building. As in the film, the currency experienced hyperinflation at the time.

Currently in Russia there is ongoing another conflict: the billionaire Rotenberg brothers (friends of Putin) introduced the payment system "Platon" that would collect payments from all freight truck drivers for using the roads to the benefit of their own firm, under the pretext the roads need maintenance and repair. Part of the payment will go to the state, but a significant part would go to the hands of the Rotenberg brothers, just as it was in the film with Oppenheimer in the role of the Rotenbergs. There are mass protests about this idea.

So, the history repeats or it was just a typical situation. That said, the film, I think has very little positive characters, possibly only the dead girl and the old rabbi, for which fact (absence of positive characters) the film was already criticized at the time of creation.

Even the father of the girl is shown negatively in that he forced his daughter to marry his secretary, a man whom she did not love (although friendly) so that she not to marry a Jew. The fact she did not love her husband is shown by the fact that she refused to sleep with him at the first night after marriage (and supposedly later as well), which is not how loving people typically behave. It is conceivable she had real feelings towards Oppenheimer.

It also hints at the idea that Oppenheimer became evil because of the anti-Semitism (he says so). In the initial part of the film he is constantly attacked and insulted just for being Jewish, and tries to respond politely. In the film other Jews than Oppenheimer and his aides are not shown to do anything bad, but suffer in the end.

In general I think the film makes attempt to describe inter-ethnic interactions as realistic as possible, even though the whole narrative may be beneficial to the Nazi cause.

On the other hand if you consider another German film "Munchhausen" of 1943, where the same actor, Marian plays a role of Jewish count Cagliostro you definitely will see a lot of criticism of the regime. Starting from the fact that Cagliostro is a positive character, Munchhausen helps him to escape an arrest and disappear, the Venetian doge is very similar to Mussolini, and employes secret police, a scene in the harem where a black woman had better teeth than a white woman, enraging her and a lot of other stuff.

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    Yegor Gaidar is not a Jew. – sds Dec 5 '16 at 20:23
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    @sds he is believed to be 1/4 a Jew. – Anixx Dec 6 '16 at 8:23
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    "is believed to be 1/4 of a Jew" is not a sufficient reason to spread anti-semitic propaganda here. – sds Dec 6 '16 at 14:10
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    @sds it is even likely he was 1/2 Jewish jewish.ru/theme/cis/2009/12/news994280867.php At least, the chief editor of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia Zeyev Vagner said Gaidar was 1/2 Jewish and that he got offended for not having an article about himself in the Jewish Encyclopedia. – Anixx Dec 6 '16 at 16:14

The German versions of "Jud Suess" and "Der Ewige Jude" were not criticisms of Hitler. But they were "take-offs on American (Jew Suess) and British (The Eternal Jew) films of the same names that were critical of Hitler.

The German versions were "sponsored" by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who took a personal interest in "turning" the Anglo-American films. It is highly unlikely that he would allowed the production of anything critical of Hitler (although it is barely possible that individual critical passages were "slipped in").

The Nazis were cynical, hypocritical people, and it was not above them to "overrule the interests of [legtimate authority and]... amend the constitution." Their only quarrel with such actions was when Jews did them.

  • Actually, if you take the film "Munchhausen", it is quite critical of Hitler and Nazis, even if made in the same place. My point is, these films are different in this respect. – Anixx Dec 6 '16 at 16:21

It might be worth mentioning that the American and German films are both based on a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, who was a Jew and an outspoken critic of the Nazis even before they came to power. The German film completely reverses the tendency of the novel.

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