HARLAN: In the Shadow of Jew Süss
(Film Forum,  New York,  March 3-16)

What a movie this is! And how elegant! Not since Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect has there been a story about a father’s legacy so gorgeously filmed, structured, and edited. But Harlan is even more complicated, more painful, and wider-ranging. And definitely darker. That’s for starters.

Why not just say it? I was nailed to my seat and left weeping, unsettled, and stunned by the brilliance of this film. Only a German PhD (writer/director Felix Moeller, who has studied history, political science, and communications)—working with a very, very good editor (Anette Fleming)—could have explored the subject so rigorously, or so masterfully shaped it that its progress feels as inevitable as a postlude to Das Ring. Everything happens at exactly the right moment as the story unfolds, including its often shocking revelations and surprises.

In fact, I’ve never actually seen Veit Harlan’s 1940 film version of Jew Süss; it’s kept pretty much under lock and key, as a pillar of Third Reich propaganda—required viewing for concentration camp administrators and members of the SS to keep their mission at fever pitch. Its effect on ordinary Germans, who greatly admired Harlan’s work, was no less inflammatory. Harlan’s eldest son, Thomas, describes it as “a murder instrument.”

Harlan was an enormously talented storyteller who worked in broad, melodramatic strokes, parlaying kitsch, romance, and adventure into a career that began with Madame Pompadour (1935), flowered during the Third Reich, and continued on into the post-war period after he was twice tried for, and acquitted of, crimes against humanity. There is no evidence that he regretted his career choices, including the making of the film that would bring him permanent notoriety.

He lived as large as his movies, with three wives, many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, whose experiences make up the narrative of Harlan. Bearing a strong resemblance to their charismatic forebear, most work as writers, filmmakers, designers and musicians. They are intelligent and articulate in describing the burden of their heritage. They agree on Harlan’s talent (although, says one wryly, “a better filmmaker would have made a worse film”), but not on his motives or behavior.

Moeller’s interviews are probing; his instincts are impeccable. While the film’s plot, issues, and subjects are complex, its arguments are compelling and easy to grasp. What makes Harlan such a standout, though, is its combination of emotional truth and the lavish use of archival footage–including excerpts from Harlan’s films, (Jew Süss is really hair-raising!), intimate home movies, and a wealth of newsreels and interviews with and about him; he remained a celebrity throughout most of his life.

Harlan is not an easy film to watch, but is, without question, a searing and dramatic exploration of options and consequences. The result is a rich, rich morality play with some extraordinary players,  vivid accounts of human complexity, and a finale still under construction. My tears, in the end, were not for what was past, but for what some of Harlan’s progeny have made of the present, and will try to accomplish in the future. It offers the promise of a measure of redemption, and of hope—always more powerful than perpetual mourning. You really will not forget this family and their struggles with a dilemma they did not create, but cannot escape.

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