08 September 2013

Veit Harlan

Film director and actor Veit Harlan (1899-1964) was one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious filmmakers. His most perfidious film was the anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß/Jew Süss (1940) filled with vicious stereotypes of Jews.

Veit Harlan
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 7753/1, 1935. Photo: Robertson, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.


Veit Harlan was born in Berlin in 1899. His father was a novelist and two of his brothers were musicians. After studying under Max Reinhardt, he first appeared on the stage in 1915 and, after World War I, worked at the Berlin State Theatre for eleven years.

In 1922 he married Jewish actress and cabaret singer Dora Gerson; the couple divorced in 1924. In 1943, Gerson was killed in Auschwitz, with her family.

Harlan made his film debut in 1925. He played roles in films like the historical comedy Der Meister von Nürnberg/The Master of Nuremberg (Ludwig Berger, 1927), and the comedy Die Hose/The Trousers (Hans Behrendt, 1927) starring Werner Krauss.

Till 1935 he played in some 30 films. Harlan married in 1929 actress Hilde Körber, having three children with her. They divorced in 1938 ‘for political reasons related to the influence of National Socialism’, according to Wikipedia. One of their children, Thomas Harlan, became a writer and director in his own right.

His first direction was the romantic comedy Krach im Hinterhaus/Trouble Backstairs (1934) starring silent film star Henny Porten. It was a success and in the following years Harlan specialized in romantic idylls like Die Kreutzersonate/The Kreutzer Sonata (1937) and Die Reise nach Tilsit/The Trip to Tilsit (1939), a remake of F. W. Murnau’s silent classic Sunrise (1926).

In 1939, Harlan married the star of his film, Swedish actress Kristina Söderbaum. Since 1933, Harlan was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). After many of the country's best filmmakers had fled the country, Joseph Goebbels had appointed Harlan in 1937 as one of his leading propaganda directors.

His most notorious film was Jud Süß/Jew Süss (1940), which was made for anti-Semitic propaganda purposes in Germany and Austria. The film was required viewing for all SS members. Set in the 18th century, it claims to be a dramatization of the true story of how a sinister, cunning Jewish financier, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (Ferdinand Marian), took control of the duchy of Wurttemberg while preying sexually on a pure Aryan maiden (Kristina Söderbaum). The film was a hit and seen by more than 20 million people. In 1943 it received Ufa's highest awards.

Werner Krauss
Werner Krauss. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. A 3264/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Foto Quick / Ufa.

The First Major European Colour Film

Harlan made the Reich's loudest, most colourful and expensive films. In 1942 he directed the first major European colour film, Die goldene Stadt/The Golden City.

Next he directed the melodramas Immensee (1943) and Opfergang/The Great Sacrifice (1944) which included some very dramatic suicide scenes, further increasing Harlan and Söderbaum’s popularity with the German cinema audience.

Harlan’s megalomaniac epic Kolberg (1945) was the basis for Inglourious Basterds’ pivotal film-within-a-film Stolz Der Nation. One of the last films of the Third Reich, Kolberg was intended as a Nazi propaganda piece to shore up the will of the German population to resist the Allies.

The film is based on the autobiography of Joachim Nettelbeck, mayor of Kolberg in western Pomerania. It tells the story of the successful defence of the besieged fortress town of Kolberg against French troops between April and July 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Kristina Söderbaum
Kristina Söderbaum. German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. A  3321/1, 1941-1944. Photo: Haenchen / Tobis.

Charged With Crimes Against Humanity

After the war Veit Harlan was charged with participating in the anti-Semitic movement and aiding the Nazis. But he successfully defended himself by arguing that the Nazis controlled his work and that he should not be held personally responsible for its content. However, many former crew members and colleagues contradicted him. In 1949, Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity for his role as director of Jud Süß. The Hamburg Criminal Chamber of the Regional Court (Schwurgericht) acquitted Harlan of the charges; however, the court of the British occupation zone nullified the acquittal.

In 1951, Harlan sued for an injunction against Hamburg politician Erich Lüth for publicly calling for a boycott of Unsterbliche Geliebte/Immortal Beloved (1950). The District Court in Hamburg granted Harlan's suit and ordered that Lüth forbear from making such public appeals. However, the lower court decision was ultimately overturned in 1958 by the Federal Constitutional Court because it infringed on Lüth's right to freedom of expression. This was a landmark decision because it clarified the importance of the constitutional civil rights in disputes between individuals.

Harlan made a total of nine films between 1950 and 1958, including Anders als du und ich/Different from You and Me (1957), with Christian Wolff, a feature film on homosexuality, a topic which was still highly taboo at this time.

In 1958, Veit Harlan's niece, Christiane Susanne Harlan, married filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who was Jewish. She is credited by her stage name Susanne Christian in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). They remained married until Kubrick's death in 1999.

Veit Harlan died in 1964 while on vacation in Capri. He was 64. Two months before his death he had become Catholic. Susanne Körber, one of his daughters from his second wife Hilde Körber, converted to Judaism and married the son of Holocaust victims. She committed suicide in 1989.

 In 2001, Horst Konigstein made a film titled Jud Suss - Ein Film als Verbrechen?/Jud Suss - A Film As a Crime? The documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (Felix Moeller, 2008) explores Harlan's motivations and the post-war reaction of his children and grandchildren to his notoriety.

Christian Wolff. Dutch postcard by Gebr. Spanjersberg N.V., Rotterdam, no. 4268. Photo: Arca / Cinepress.

Sources: Sandra Brennan (AllMovie), John Simkin (Spartacus Educational), New York Times, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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