This last week I visited the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art for a school project. They have a Holocaust section, and there I saw the poster for a 1940 Nazi propaganda picture, Jud Süß, which I’d seen some years back in L.A. The film is a monstrous yet hypnotic nightmare, and I was startled as to how quickly the details of the film came rushing back into my brain.
The film was partially conceived to compete with Hollywood productions; the medieval setting is marvelous and rich, the costuming lavish,and while director/screenplay write Veit Harlan is no Fritz Lang, his direction is sure and confident. But make no mistake about it, this is a monster movie, and the monster is the Jewish race. This is no Frankenstein; there are no moments of sympathy, no misunderstanding of intentions; the unrelenting, raw hate for the monster is almost unbearable. It was the most popular movie in Germany in 1940.
Today it is banned in many European countries, including, naturally, Germany, and the copyright holders, The Murnau Foundation, only allows screenings if there is a speaker to explain the context and meaning of the film. There are some bootleg DVDs floating around, and I imagine they are very popular with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
The story is based on a novel, which was loosely based on some historical happenings. The novel was actually a statement against anti-semitism, but the Nazi propaganda machine twisted the story around.
It’s a fairly straightforward story. Joseph Suss Oppenheimer is a Jewish money lender; the Duke of Württemberg can’t afford to keep his best gal in the style which she demands, so he turns to Süß, for help. Süß, makes generous loans again and again, using the Duke’s ever-increasing debt to gain power over him and move up in society. Süß, lusts after a young blonde Aryan girl, and through manipulation, gets her in a position where she has to have sex with him or her husband will be killed. Thus defiled, the woman kills herself. The Duke picks that unfortunate time to die and the populace rises up in outrage. Süß, is captured and sentenced to hang. He is hoisted in a cage far above the town square, pleading and whining for his life the whole time. The crowd gathers, the bottom of the cage is dropped and Suß hangs, Fade out.
The horror of the story comes from the portrayal of Süß, and his friends. Every ant-Semitic stereotype you’ve ever heard of is applied to every Jewish character, with the possible exception of mixing the blood of Christian children in with their matzah: Big noses, oily complexions, living in filth, greedy grasping, plotting the overthrow of the world government through their control of banking, having no loyalty to any country but only to their race, gross amorality and, of course, their basic lust for white women, especially blondes. These people aren’t even animals, these are cockroaches walking like men, which is a familiar Nazi comment in documents from the war-time period.
I’d seen (and continue to see) these stereotypes around, but usually there is some sort of attempt at humorous camoflauge thrown over them; Little Jewish tailors with hook noses and glasses making some kind of screw-the-customer ha-ha comment. These are offensive and mean spirited, but they strike me as almost innocent compared to Jud Süß.
I guess I have never known a real hard-core racist. I know people who say they dislike ethnic groups as a whole, but never act on it, and, in fact, I sometimes think they don’t even believe it. This is just a part of the country where its part of your upbringing and you repeat what you’ve heard growing up the same way you find yourself repeating some of your parents’s stock proverbs from time to time. This doesn’t excuse anything, mind you. But I have never met anyone that out and out really honest-to-God hates a particular group of people, hates them to the point of advocating actions against them or being willing to take that action themselves. I know they are out there; that’s scary.
That hate is what comes across so strongly in Jud Süß. The people making this movie aren’t really trying to win converts to their cause, though I’m sure that was part of the plan. It is largely preaching to the choir, telling you that every vile thing you have ever thought about the Jews is not only true, it’s truer than you ever thought. I guess the film-makers and the German public of that day missed the parts where the so-called “good guys” willingly go into hock financing their own stupid lusts and plans; the fact that all those superior white people can’t seem to figure out how to save their cash or even lend it on their own. No, their faults are somehow the result of the Jews.
Yeah, and government regulation caused the BP oil spill.
Though I believe in the free dissemination of ideas, I have to come down on the side of the censors in this case, though I am troubled by it. But I know a guy who thinks the Errol Flynn Charge of the Light Brigade is accurate history; a movie like Jüd Suß is dangerous. That other monument to Nazi propaganda, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, is awe-inspiring yet the propaganda message is fairly easy to reject. The power of drama is such that, even as you know Jud Süß is a crazy man’s warped perspective, you get sucked into the story nonetheless. Assuming a strong script and solid actors, how can you not sympathize with someone getting the screws put to them by a manipulative, cowardly scavenger? Yet, unless you have bought into anti-Semitism, you can see right through that stereotype, and that conflict is what causes the horror, at least for me. It’s surreal and disturbing in a way that no tentacled creature could ever be.
Given Lovecraft’s own racism, one wonders if he was just all-talk or would have been an ardent supporter of the ideas and themes in this movie. I hate to think he would be, but, at least from his early writings, I’m afraid he would be. As far as I know, the movie was never shown in the U.S. I’ll stick with Cthulhu, thank you very much.
Last week, by the way, January 27, was Holocaust Remembrance Day. google and the Yad Vashem Photo Archive debuted part 1 of a new project documenting the Holocaust. Over 13,000 photos and documents are up. It’s a chilling reminder of why films like Jud Süßcan be so dangerous.