15 March 2010

Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Süss / Harlan - Im Schatten von Jud Süss (Felix Moeller, 2008, Germany)

The title of this film refers to Veit Harlan's autobiography, In the Shadow of My Films. It's sort of presented as being about the notorious Nazi propaganda film but I feel like Manohla Dargis does a better job of introducing and contextualizing this film in her review in the New York Times. The parts of the film that talk about Harlan's work tend to rambling and lacking in context and depth. The film succeeds however in that it is actually more of an examination of how this splintered family deals with the weight of the infamy of their father/grandfather's work. When the film first started, I kind of groaned because it sort of seemed like a very special episode of a news magazine show like Dateline or 20/20 but as the family members started talking it was like this amazing, graceful tapestry was being revealed in front of me. Like I said, the documentary doesn't succeed at presenting the film, the director's body of work, or the context of it all but his descendants are really fascinating people. They're all articulate, intelligent, thoughtful people and I really found it thrilling to watch the way they all dealt with it. I saw the film in a class on the history of German film when I was in college and I have to say I'm with the granddaughters who upon finally watching the film were so shocked that it's considered a well-made, powerful film because it comes across as kitschy and appalling. The film is sort of like a blend of early DW Griffith films like Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms but it lacks a certain fine touch that made those movies powerful despite their backwards ideologies. It's interesting how spread out the family became. You have a niece who is Stanley Kubrick's widow, three German granddaughters, a French granddaughter, and an Italian grandson. It's fascinating how many of his descendants went on to marry Jewish man and how their children process the fact that their maternal grandfather made propaganda that was used to exterminate their paternal grandparents. The middle part of the movie, where Harlan's work is described, feels often times like a tangent. The film would have been stronger if the narrative thread was tighter and if the editorial voice was more stronger and more probing, I think, but the film as it is is really fascinating and I'd certainly see it again if I had the opportunity. B+/A-

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