Lecturing at the 2008 Telluride Film Festival after a screening of The Great Sacrifice, the hallucinatory romance directed by the notorious Veit Harlan, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared Harlan the one great Nazi-era German auteur whose films “cannot be redeemed.” It was not a simple condemnation: Zizek also once named Sacrifice as one of the three works of art he’d take to a desert island.
The only Third Reich filmmaker to be tried on crimes against humanity (he was acquitted, twice), Harlan’s anti-Semitic 1940 hit Jew Süss is credited with getting the German moviegoing public onboard with the Final Solution. The question of whether or not Harlan can be redeemed posthumously—as either a filmmaker or as a human being—sits at the heart of Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, Felix Moeller’s documentary about Harlan’s life and work, told primarily by the extended family he left behind.
All of the Harlan children and grandchildren seen here concur that Süss was used as a “murder weapon,” but they disagree over whether or not the filmmaker intended it as such. Was Harlan—who often cast second wife Kristina Söderbaum as an Aryan goddess, embodying “purity, unspoiled nature, and idyllic romance” and inevitably tainted by outside forces—truly sympathetic to the Nazi cause? Or was he a gifted, passionate filmmaker who could only practice his trade by sucking up to Goebbels?
Stuffed with talking heads, Harlan is overlong and redundant, but its core questions are worthy. It’s easy to dismiss a live-action cartoon like Süss; it’s harder to deal with Harlan’s swoony melodramas like Sacrifice, epic commercials for German supremacy that nonetheless play to universal, apolitical, and resolutely human emotions. How does such romanticism reconcile with such evil? And how can relatives think clearly and logically about the moral culpability of someone they love, without interrogating that love itself? “If the question is, ‘Who in Germany is guilty?,’ the fact is, many millions were slayed by us,” Harlan’s niece, Christiane Kubrick, says somberly. Harlan’s family can go around in circles debating his merits and intentions, but that “us” cuts to the quick.