The shame of notorious ancestry is the prime focus of Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, Felix Moeller’s documentary about the ways in which family members have dealt with their grandfather Veit Harlan’s legacy as the director responsible for the Third Reich’s most virulently anti-Semitic film. Released in 1940 on order of Joseph Goebbels, Jew Süss was an abhorrent piece of Holocaust-inciting propaganda. Though it was beloved upon its release both within Germany and in Europe at large, thereby solidifying Harlan’s status as one of the era’s most successful filmmakers, post-WWII society wasn’t as kind to him, trying him twice for crimes against humanity for Jew Süss (he was acquitted both times by a sympathetic judge) and decrying him throughout his subsequent behind-the-camera career as complicit in Hitler’s extermination plans.
Using home movies, archival footage, and tellingly edited clips from Harlan’s various films, Moeller swiftly and efficiently contextualizes Harlan’s specific place and role in the era, aided by a German film critic who gives insight on the inherent conservatism of the director’s entire oeuvre. Harlan, however, doesn’t dig quite deep enough into a critical appraisal of its subject’s work, a shame given that discussions of these films often take precedence over the documentary’s more pressing issue at hand: the means by which ancestors have coped with Harlan’s heinous work. Copious interviews with the artist’s children and grandchildren elucidate the dual modes in which Germans have traditionally confronted their WWII past, with some damning him outright and others qualifying their disappointment and dismay over his films by arguing that he wasn’t a Nazi (or even political) and was unwillingly coerced by the Reich into doing their bidding.
Moeller sharply addresses this last point by cutting to a Jew Süss clip in which the story’s villainous Jew attempts to use the same “They made me do it” rationale to no effect. Yet if this one moment reveals the author’s own bent with lucid potency, Harlan otherwise muddles its address of Harlan’s offspring—and the way in which they’ve contended with their familial scarlet letter—by forgoing incisive portraits of these very individuals. While their relationships are cogently mapped out by an intro family tree, these victims’ disparate personal stories are either barely addressed or detailed too late in the game to have any impact, as is the case with Harlan’s son Thomas, who, as the Nazi filmmaker’s niece Christiane Kubrick (wife of Stanley) notes toward doc’s end, nearly destroyed his own life attempting to right his father’s wrongs. The sagas of these still-suffering individuals should be the true center of attention, yet Harlan too often proves content to stay at arm’s length. The result is a documentary that goes only part way toward truly documenting.