Monday 27 September 2010
Jud Süß - the medium is not the message
Jud Süß is the most notorious anti-Semitic movie ever made. Commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and directed by Viet Harlan, the story is partly based on the novel of the same name by Lion Feuchtwanger, though his message has been twisted and corrupted almost out of all recognition.
The book and the film are both about Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, an eighteenth century Jewish financier in the service of the Duke of Wurttemberg. In the book he frustrates a plan by the Duke to subvert the duchy’s constitution, sacrificing himself in the process. In the movie he is a malevolent schemer and a sexual blackmailer, one who rapes a Christian girl, who subsequently kills herself in shame. It’s meant to induce hate, drawing on heavy Jewish stereotypes; it did induce hate, along with movies like Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), acting as an appetiser for the Holocaust.
Jud Süß is banned in Germany; it has been for the past sixty-five years. But a new interpretation, premièred at the Berlin Film Festival last year, is now on general release in the country. Directed by Oskar Roehler, Jud Süß- Film ohne Gewissen (Jud Süß - Film Without a Conscience) is a movie about a movie. It’s about another kind of seduction, another kind of blackmailer, with Joseph Goebbels in the role of manipulator and schemer.
In the original the moneylender is played by Ferdinand Marian, a onetime ambitious actor in German cinema. Marian originally declined the part but the Propaganda Minister ‘persuaded’ him to change his mind by a mixture of flattery and blackmail, vague threats against his Jewish wife, hints of possible troubles to come.
Robert Boyes in his report on the film in The Times makes it clear that the director’s intention is to show that this is how the Nazi regime operated, less by force than by a process of cooption and moral corruption. Marian is shown visiting the troops supervising the construction of Auschwitz. There he witnesses a screening of Jud Süß. When the body of the dead girl is held up the soldiers shout Jew! Jew! at the screen, their faces contorted with hate. All too late Marian has a moment of personal epiphany, realising that he has become an integral part of the coming Holocaust.
The film has caused some controversy in Germany, not least because it draws on the same racial caricatures as the original. Charlotte Knobloch, the head of the Central Board of German Jewry, has gone so far as to suggest that it should not be on general release, worried, as she is, about new stereotyping. But it seems to me that there is a serious and important message here and I’m not at all sure how one could make it without drawing on the corruptions and vices of the original.
I’ve not seen the movie so I cannot say if the director has been successful or not in his primary aim, but banning and interdicts, based on fear and presupposition, is not the answer. Yes, movies do have the power to seduce, something Goebbels, a propagandist of genius, clearly understood. Nevertheless, so much depends on the context, so much depends on the times; so much depends on the atmosphere.
Anti-Semitism does exist in the modern world, there is no point pretending that it does not, though the assumption that people are all as simple-minded as the simple-minded, that they are all ready to be seduced anew, seems to me to be disingenuous in the extreme. It’s the same censorious attitude that led to the prolonged ban of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympiad; the same attitude – dare I say it? – which allows the 1940 Jud Süß to be shown in Germany only to approved researchers and only after they’ve received a preliminary lecture on ‘context’. This is all so much condescending and paternalistic rubbish: in the case of the original the medium was not the message; the Nazi state was the medium and the message.
According to Boyes there are plans to release Jud Süß- Film Without a Conscience in Britain. He urges his readers to watch it, even if it hurts. I will; I shall.