- Jew Süss: Life, Legend, Fiction, Film by Susan Tegel
On January 4, 1948 the journalist Peter de Mendelssohn weighed in on a heated debate about the criminal culpability of Veit Harlan (1899–1964), the director of the infamous 1940 Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss. A few weeks earlier, during denazification proceedings, Harlan had been placed in category V (exonerated), prompting a defiant de Mendelssohn to write in Der Tagesspiegel: “From the film Jud Süss, the way leads straight to the gas chambers” (quoted p. 206). Harlan’s vulgarly antisemitic film counts as one of the great “successes” of Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda. After Heinrich Himmler attended the September 24, 1940 premier, for instance, he instructed all members of the SS and police to see the film sometime during the course of the winter (p. 182). But even without Himmler’s directive, millions of viewers saw the film—between 1940 and 1943, at least 20.3 million people in Germany and across occupied Europe saw Jud Süss; during the 1961 Auschwitz Trial, one witness noted that it had been screened at concentration camps along with other incitement films (Hetzfilme) to stoke guards’ antisemitic feelings. In light of the outrage over Harlan’s exoneration, occupation authorities reclassified him as a “fellow traveler” and in March 1949 tried him for crimes against humanity. Yet the magistrate—a former Nazi—acquitted Harlan, deeming it impossible to establish precise links between the film and specific atrocities. Harlan would direct ten more films over the next fourteen years. He remains a divisive figure.
While Harlan’s legal troubles between 1945 and 1950 form the endpoint of Susan Tegel’s Jew Süss: Life, Legend, Fiction, Film, the narrative begins with the story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (1698–1738), who formed the basis of the title character of Harlan’s film. Süss (as he was known) was a court Jew (Hofjude) who rose to power as a financial advisor to Prince Carl Alexander (1684–1737), the unpopular Catholic ruler of predominantly Protestant Württemberg at a time when most Jews in Germany’s patch-work of kingdoms and principalities were still confined to ghettos. Süss acquired enormous influence and, according to many accounts, exploited it for financial and personal gain, but after Carl Alexander died suddenly in 1737, Süss was quickly arrested. After a highly publicized trial, he was publicly hanged in 1738. As Tegel notes, “Süss’ reversal of fortune . . . became an eighteenth-century media event, the subject of books, pamphlets, and broadsides, the last-mentioned telling his story in both images and text as [End Page 294] well as drama” (p. 51). These multiple retellings of this spectacular episode of judicial murder rife with antisemitic overtones created what Tegel calls the legend of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, which unlike myth, “suggests a grain of truth” (p. 49).
Tegel’s mission is twofold: first, to disentangle the facts of Süss’s story from the fictions it generated and second, to explore the ways in which representations of Süss have served as propaganda and entertainment. To this end, Jew Süss: Life, Legend, Fiction, Film proceeds in strict chronological order. The first three chapters reconstruct and contextualize Süss’s life as part of early modern German and German Jewish history. The subsequent chapters recount Süss’s afterlife in literature and film, paying particular attention to the most significant versions, all titled Jud Süss: two prose works, the German Romantic writer Wilhelm Hauff’s 1827 novella, and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 novel, a philosemitic 1934 British film by Lothar Mendes, and Harlan’s 1940 film, which starred Austrian actor Ferdinand Marian as Süss and Harlan’s wife Kristina Söderbaum as the unwitting victim of Süss’s “race-defiling” seduction. These four works form the touchstones of Jew Süss: Life, Legend, Fiction, Film, but Tegel’s thoroughly researched reception history also recovers a wide range of additional interpretations by historians, dramatists, and novelists, many...