In the years following the Second World War, Veit Harlan, darling of the Third Reich and director and co-writer of the notorious propaganda film Jew Süss (1940), was twice tried for crimes against humanity and twice acquitted. Felix Moeller’s documentary Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss (2009), now available on DVD from Zeitgeist, is thus less concerned with re-opening the case, so to speak, than enriching our understanding of its consequences by attempting to take measure of that titular shadow, which loomed not only over Harlan’s life, which came to a quiet end in Italy in 1964, but which still looms over the lives of his many descendents. Moeller’s film is less polemic than family portrait, less investigative report than biographical essay. For the most part its value lies in its narrative density, which only accumulates as it goes.
The Harlan clan forms a diverse and conflicted chorus. On one end of the spectrum we find Harlan’s daughter Maria Körber, who says dad had plenty of Jewish friends so surely he had no anti-Semitic feelings of his own, and who claims that she was forced against her will to cast off her infamous surname when she began her own career in movies—a claim which Moeller situates so as to sound a subtle echo of Harlan’s claim that he was coerced into making Jew Süss, a project “commissioned” by Joseph Goebbels. On the other end we find Harlan’s son Thomas Harlan, who seems to have bore the sins of his father most heavily, who became involved in researching Nazi war crimes and in helping to mount socialist revolutions in Chile and elsewhere. Thomas is probably Moeller’s single-most fascinating subject, his life seemingly one extended, rather flamboyant reaction against his father’s legacy. It’s interesting that chief among Thomas’ grievances is the fact that Veit Harlan returned to filmmaking after his acquittals rather than assume some other profession, as though resigning from filmmaking could have served as a kind of meaningful penance. Of Harlan’s extended family the most notable and articulate testimony comes from his niece Christiane Kubrick, who married the director Stanley Kubrick, who happened to be Jewish, and who, sadly, never managed to fulfill his dream of making a film about Harlan and the German film industry under National Socialism.
Chance plays such a haunting role in all this. It suggests that there are two kinds of evil, the kind so potent that it will find an outlet no matter the circumstance and the kind that might never manifest without just the right set of opportunities to prompt it. Harlan’s collaboration could be regarded as an evil of the latter category, which makes the fall-out, for all involved, that much more arduous to draw conclusions from. When rigorously following the threads of the Harlans’ life stories, Moeller’s film is totally captivating. Moeller only runs into trouble when he seems unable to distinguish which threads are most vital to the core of his project—he spends too much time with some of Harlan’s youngest grandchildren, who mostly have little to say, and refers too frequently to scenes from Jew Süss, which, when pried loose from their context can seem misleading. So Harlan is finally a bit overlong and at certain points under-focused, but what’s best in it more than justifies the time invested.