"Thats none of your business," an agitated man said. Kristian Harlan is his name. He's sat at his kitchen table, a mixed bundle of emotions. He's stubborn in maintaining that his opinion of his father should be private, yet appears to recognize a sense of obligation to speak. Kristian is just one of over a dozen family members interviewed for this documentary. Some of them are painfully aware of their legacy, others have a harder time superimposing such horror on their relatives. But they're all part of the Harlan clan.
Their long-deceased patriach, Veit Harlan, was Joseph Goebbels' golden boy during the Third Reich. The Harlan family tree's legacy is Jew Suss; a movie so anti-Semitic and unapologetically fearmongering that Goebbels declared it required viewing for anyone in the SS.
Harlan probes the family as they are today, to see their wildly conflicting reactions to this fact and how they've coped with it for so long. Director Felix Moeller can be kitschy in his presentation, with melodramatically staged sequences, posed expressions and humming ominous music. The depth of his research on this family and the wealth of history he brings into the film, however, makes the film. Veit Harlan was married three times, and Moeller tracked down the descendants from the different branches, now in multiple countries, presenting a variety of reasonably distanced yet personally affected opinions.
I remember a Q&A with Quentin Tarantino I attended last year for Inglourious Basterds, where Tarantino was asked about the reaction to his film from both the German actors who participated and Germany in general. Tarantino asserted that most of them welcome a revenge fantasy because nobody hates Nazis as much as present-day Germans (I recommend a film called Der Wave, which talks about this generational resentment), and that his German actors were very uncomfortable shooting the theater scene because it had Nazi banners—illegal in Germany—hung around them. Imagine that kind of pervasive guilt and shame, multiplied by the revelation of it being your own blood.
Alice Harlan recounts the day her textbook mentioned her grandfather and the questions that followed from her class. Ashamed and afraid, she held back tears and swore that her surname was just a coincidence. In contrast, her father Thomas has spent almost his entire life standing on a soapbox, railing against his own father. This course of action has invited bitter critiques from his siblings, who don't understand why he has to hold a grudge and drag the family name through the mud for so long; but Thomas argues that because he loved his father as much as he did, he has volunteered to shoulder the responsibility of making amends by calling out Jew Suss' crime. A pop culture Nuremberg Trial, if you will.
Far more fascinating than the family apologia, though, is the questioning of why Veit Harlan agreed to make the movie in the first place. His children argue that he was not anti-Semitic, and that he was just going along with what was expected of him in that era of German films. Apparently, Veit Harlan's biggest epic, Kolberg, a patriotic propaganda film, was supposed to be an anti-war film, but Goebbels more or less took final cut away from him and edited out what he called "pacifist" shots to turn Kolberg into what it's known for.
This immediately brings to mind the relationship between a director and his producer, with the added danger of a totalitarian government. Jew Suss, after all, was a smash hit. One of the young Harlan girls questions why Veit Harlan had to make Jew Suss so effective. Why couldn't he purposely skew the film's message if he didn't really believe in the Reich's intent?
But how do you ask an artist to sabotage his own work?
A surprise family member interviewed is Christiane Kubrick, the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick's widow, whose brother Jan Harlan (also interviewed in the film) was the executive producer of films like The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. She offers a conversation she had with Kubrick shortly after he met the Harlan family, including Veit himself. "If it was him in Veit Harlan's position, would he have done anything differently?" He didn't know, and we might have a very different idea of Stanley Kubrick today if he was.
Moeller leaves one question unanswered, but it certainly lingers throughout Harlan: is it possible to judge an artist—or even a single work of art—completely separate from its cultural impact? Or is that responsibility simply too big to ignore? Since Moeller's film provides conflicting answers, it ends up only condemning the obvious while continuing the debate. The purpose, it would seem, is as the solitary Kristian Harlan feared; that it throws a family quandary, historically relevant as it is, into the public consciousness for strangers like myself to intrude upon.
"Harlan - In the Shadow of Jew Süss" opens March 3, 2010 and is not rated. Documentary. Written and directed by Felix Moeller. Starring Thomas Harlan, Jan Harlan, Christiane Kubrick.