Families suffering under a curse are a staple of melodramatic fiction, but what if a family labored under a curse in real life? And what if that curse was something created by their long-dead father and grandfather, one of Nazi Germany's most infamous filmmakers? Such is the compelling premise behind the deeply fascinating, unexpectedly potent documentary "Harlan — In the Shadow of 'Jew Suss.' "
The Harlan of the title is Veit Harlan, who along with Leni Riefenstahl was the Third Reich's most celebrated and successful director. Though his career lasted for decades, his best-known film is one of the most virulent and notorious examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, 1940's infamous "Jew Suss."
The story of how a scheming Jew grasped for power and defiled Aryan women with ruinous results in 18th century Germany, "Jew Suss" was seen by an estimated 100 million people across Europe and was made required viewing for the SS by Heinrich Himmler. After the war, director Harlan was tried twice for crimes against humanity, one of the few artists so prosecuted, and was acquitted both times.
Veteran German documentarian Felix Moeller has elegantly combined two themes here. First, he tells the story of Harlan's life and career, showing how the director came to make "Jew Suss" and why his third wife, star Kristina Soderbaum, came to feel that the film ruined their lives.
Just as gripping, if not more so, is the story of how Harlan's extended family, his five children by several wives, six grandchildren and a niece and a nephew, wrestle with the consequences of being related to such a notorious man.
As Moeller interviews all the candid and articulate surviving relations, we come to see how Harlan's toxic legacy played out among the generations, shattering the haunted family in ways that are disturbing and surprising.
The son of a playwright, Veit Harlan came to directing by way of acting. One of his children convincingly describes him as "loud and crude" in person, but it was his ability to smoothly blend drama with ideological content that caught the eye of the Nazi power elite and led to the assignment to direct "Jew Suss."
Among his children and grandchildren, disagreements still exist as to whether Harlan was pressured into making "Jew Suss" against his will, whether he actually had an affinity for the material or whether he was an apolitical careerist who simply got carried away by the chance to be a favorite of the powerful.
That notion, that the director was "an ambitious fellow traveler," is advanced by Jan Harlan, the filmmaker's nephew and, by a quirk of filmmaking fate, Stanley Kubrick's longtime production associate. Jan's sister, Christiane, was Kubrick's wife, and her recollections are especially intriguing.
Kubrick, she said, had thought seriously about making a film about Harlan's situation. "Stanley asked himself the same question," she relates. "If I was in the same position, what would I have done?"
Harlan himself was nothing if not unapologetic after the war. He claimed he was a victim, used by the Nazis, and, as one relative says, he was never self-critical, never expressed regret, never took responsibility.
The director's children, who differ on many things, agree on how disturbing "Jew Suss" was for them to watch. Maria Korber, his only surviving daughter (her sister committed suicide in 1989), is typical when she says, "I wept and was in despair, I couldn't believe what I saw. It was horrific. I felt like going outside and puking."
Most outspoken against their father is oldest son Thomas, who confesses to having "extreme prejudice" against Harlan for having "created an instrument of murder." Taking the opposite tack is another son, Kristian, who says flatly "it's nobody's business what I think of my father" and is clearly irritated at Thomas' agony.
All in all, 12 relatives of Harlan appear on screen, and it is a tribute to the skills of director Moeller that all of them, including a granddaughter with a Jewish father who says "I belong to a family which the Nazis divided into perpetrators and victims," sound thoughtful and individual.
As these people describe their emotional and psychological struggles, "Harlan — In the Shadow of 'Jew Suss' " goes well beyond the bounds of historical investigation or cinematic analysis and becomes an examination of souls in torment of the most profound kind.