Jud SÜss - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

Germany, 1940

Director: Harlan Veit

Production: Terra Film; black and white; running time: 85 minutes. Filmed in Berlin and Prague, March-August 1940.

Screenplay: Veit Harlan, Eberhard Wolfgang Möller, Veit Harlan, and Ludwig Metzer, from the novel by Lion Feuchtwanger; photography: Bruno Mondi; music: Wolfgang Zeller.

Cast: Ferdinand Marian ( Süss ); Werner Krauss ( Rabbi Loew, secretary Levy, and other unidentified characters ); Heinrich George ( Duke of Württemberg ); Kristina Söderbaum ( Raped girl ); Eugene Klöpfer ( Raped girl's father ); Hilde von Stolz; Malte Jäger; Albert Florath; Theodor Loos; and Wolfgang Staudte.



Knihl, Friedrich, and others, Jud Süss: Filmprotokoli, Programmheft und Einzelanalysen , Berlin 1983.


Feuchtwanger, Lion, Jud Süss , Munich, 1928.

Wulf, Joseph, Theater und Film im Dritten Reich , Gütersloh, 1964.

Harlan, Veit, Im Schatten Meiner Filme , Gütersloh, 1966.

Eisner, Lotte H., The Haunted Screen , Berkeley, 1973.

Hull, David Stewart, Film in the Third Reich , New York, 1973.

Zielinski, Siegfried, Veit Harlan: Analysen und Materialien zur Auseinandersetzung mit einem Film-Regisseur des deutschen Faschismus , Frankfurt/Main, 1981.

Fröhlich, Gustav, Waren das Zeiten: Mein Film-Heldenleben , Munich, 1983.

Friedman, Régine Mihal, L'Image et son juif: le juif dans le cinéma nazi , Paris, 1983.

Welch, David, Propaganda and the German Cinema , Oxford 1987.

Gethmann, Daniel, Das Narvik-Projekt: Film und Krieg , Bonn, 1998.


Tegel, S., "Viet Harlan and the Origins of Jud Suess 1938–1939: Opportunism in the Creation of Nazi Anti-Semitic Film Propoganda," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Basingstoke), vol. 16, no. 4, 1996.

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Jud Süss is very loosely based on the historical personage of Josef Süss Oppenheimer who, in the early-18th century became a financial adviser to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg, with the authority to collect taxes; this, naturally, did not endear him to the Duke's subjects. When Karl Alexander suddenly died, Süss was put on trial and was hanged. The eventual transmogrification of the historical Süss, and of the several previous fictions based on his fate (Wilhelm Hauff, Lion Feuchtwanger) into the Jud Süss of the movie was mainly the work of the Nazi minister of propaganda himself, Dr. Josef Goebbels.

The idea for a film about Süss had been peddled in German studios by scriptwriter Ludwig Metzger since 1921, but it wasn't until Goebbels saw the British film-adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger's novel Jud Süss (1934) that he realized the anti-semitic potential the material had, if interpreted not as a human tragedy (as in the British film), but as a tale of Jewish arrogance and infiltration. The story of how the director and the actors were selected for the film is a tragic farce of coercion, extortion, and eventual capitulation to the fear endemic to cruel dictatorships.

Pieced together from sources at my disposal, it seems obvious that almost all chief actors, and the director himself, tried—by various tricks—to escape the assignment. Goebbels either outwitted them, or knew about compromising circumstances in their lives and used this knowledge for bludgeoning them into acceptance. The reluctance to participate in this politically-most-correct film shows how aware most German artists were of the fact that anti-semitism under Hitler changed from prejudice to murder. They could have, of course, refused but saying "no" required extraordinary courage: the dire consequences of such an act of defiance were only too easy to imagine.

One of the paradoxes of this sinister film is how many participants in the violently racist project had either Jewish spouses or relatives, were disciples of Jewish artists and known friends or Jews, or had been—before the Nazi takeover—left-leaning intellectuals, even communists (such as Heinrich George, who eventually died in a Soviet concentration camp). Thus the director Veit Harlan's first wife was Jewish, he himself had been an admirer of Max Reinhardt and Stanislavski, and, earlier in life, flirted with socialism. Werner Krauss's daughter-in-law was Jewish, and Ferdinand Marian, who played the title role, had a half-Jewish daughter from his first marriage. His second wife had been married to a Jew, whom Marian hid in his house. Another actor, Hans Meyer-Hanno, reportedly a communist, acted in Nazi films apparently to protect his Jewish wife, the pianist Irene Saager.

Harlan, who obviously did not mind making films with heavy infusions of Nazi ideology ( Der Herrscher , 1937, and many films made after Jud Süss ), tried very hard to avoid this particular assignment. At first he raised objections to the artistic quality of the script; when this didn't work he even volunteered for frontline military service. Goebbels proclaimed the making of Jud Süss a wartime duty and thus turned possible refusals into acts of desertion. Harlan's Swedish wife, Kristina Söderbaum, the leading lady of the film, who

Jud Süss
Jud Süss
had just had a baby, attempted to use breast-feeding as an excuse; but a wet nurse was hired. Moreover, Harlan was permitted to stop all work in the studio whenever the baby became hungry. Werner Krauss tried another ruse: he knew that Goebbels disliked casting the same actor in two roles, and so he demanded that he play all the main Jewish characters arguing that the role of the rabbi was too small for an actor of his stature. Goebbels consented. Marian, on purpose, bungled his screen test but Goebbels saw through it, and all the actor could do was to get drunk, which he promptly did. After the war, Marian died in a car accident which most sources interpret as suicide. In any case, his widow committed suicide shortly after she had appeared as witness at Harlan's denazification hearings.

Some, however (for instance, Emil Jannings), succeeded in tricking their way out of the role: Jannings maintained that he was too old for the part of the Jewish Casanova, and also too fat; and since there were already two corpulent leading men in the cast (George and Klöpfer) it would be like "an opera with three basses."

Coerced into taking the job, Harlan tried to direct his actors in such a way that they would not sink to the level of Stürmer-like anti-semitic caricatures. He also attempted to soften the impact of the repulsive rape scene by giving Süss as motivation, revenge for having been refused the girl's hand by her father rather than "Jewish lewdness." In the final scene of Süss's brutal execution Harlan wrote a defiant speech for Marian, who had biblical overtones, and condemned the German authorities. When Goebbels was shown a rough-cut copy, he flew into a rage and had the outspoken speech replaced with one in which the cowardly Jew begged for his life.

Thus, no matter how Harlan and his actors tried to dilute the vile message of the movie (Krauss, for instance, successfully argued against having to perform with an artificial crooked "Jewish" nose because it limited the movement of facial muscles), the outcome, in the historical context of anti-Jewish hysteria, was a film which substantially exacerbated anti-semitic feeling. For the purpose of ideology it introduced into Süss's story fictional characters (the raped "Aryan" girl; her husband exposed to torture on Süss's orders), and distorted the historical personage of Süss Oppenheimer to conform to the racist image of the Jew as poisoner of society.

The resulting film is a mediocre melodrama at best. Harlan's direction is, mildly speaking, uninspired. Most of the acting is bombastic, except for, on occasion, that of Krauss and Marian, whose portrayal of Jewish characters can, perhaps, be traced to Vachtangov's documentary about the Moscow Jewish theatre which, for study purposes, was screened for the cast. The camera work is a far cry from the lively photography of the best German films of the silent era. All in all, the film is not only repugnant but uninteresting as cinema.

After the Nazis came to power some of Germany's best artists, unable to compromise their artistic integrity, left the country (Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, among others). Harlan opted to compromise. The result was a number of films which are memorable only as examples of how deep art can sink if it— voluntarily or not—serves ideological lies.

—Josef Škvorecký

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