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Thursday, 23 September 2010

Outrage over 'retelling' of Nazi film that incited holocaust murderers

IT was the film that was supposed to mobilise the German nation to murder the Jews: Jud Suss, a notorious  1940 classic of anti-Semitic propaganda.

Now, exactly 70 years after it was first shown in the cinemas of the Third Reich, a new version has been released. It is being booed by preview audiences, blasted by critics and dismissed as a historical distortion. The Central Board of German Jewry has condemned it, saying that it peddles the old anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The intent of the new work, Jud Suss - Film Without A Conscience, is naturally quite different. It is not so much a remake as a "making of" film that tries to explain how respectable actors were drawn into the project by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

"It tells the story of the main actor in Jud Suss, Ferdinand Marian," said Oskar Roehler, the director. "He is sucked into the manipulative machine of Goebbels, who wants to use the film to kick off a campaign of extermination against the Jews."

Shown to 20 million Germans before 1945 - including SS troopers before they were sent off to the killing fields of Poland and Eastern Europe - the original Jud Suss was put under wraps after the war. At least one of the actors was thrown into a prison camp by Soviet forces while Marian died in a mysterious car crash in 1946.

To this day, the original film can be shown only to restricted audiences and has to be prefaced and followed by commentaries from vetted historians.

It was a crude depiction by the director, Veit Harlan, of the Jewish merchant Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who advised a south German duke on financial affairs in the early 18th century. He transformed the duchy's finances but was despised by those outside court and was accused of seducing the Christian daughter of a rival. For this he was executed in 1738.

The Nazi reconstruction of this historical episode portrays Suss as a leering lecher and is aimed at raising a cheer from cinema audiences when he is eventually killed.

The Hitler regime outlawed sex and marriage between so-called Aryans and Jews and, among other things, the film demonstrated that the practice had deep Germanic roots.

Despite attempts by Marian to introduce some likeable character traits into his depiction of the merchant, he comes over as evil and thus made the whole film into a blunt piece of emotional manipulation.

The new film shows Marian as a charming but weak adulterer. The scene that drew loud boos in the preview features Marian - played by Tobias Moretti, the Austrian actor - in a hotel room in Berlin while Allied aircraft bomb the city. He is with the wife of the Nazi commander of a Jewish ghetto. She demands that Marian utter some of the text from Jud Suss, then shouts out - a quote from the Nazi film - "Take me, Jew" and raises her skirt. They make love to the sounds of the Allied bombardment.

That, plainly, was too close to the bone for the selected audience and is likely to cause a stir when the film goes on general release today.

There have been many recent films attempting to find new ways of telling the story of Hitler and the Holocaust. The German-made Downfall depicted Hitler's final ten days in his Berlin bunker; Quentin Tarrantino's Inglourious Basterds had a group of American Jewish soldiers seeking blood-curdling revenge on the Germans; Mein Fuhrer tried to poke fun at Hitler.

Roehler's film, however, directly tackles wartime Germany's attitudes to the Jews - and it does not make pleasant viewing. Charlotte Knobloch, the head of the Central Board of German Jewry, declared that the film should not be put on general release. Her logic is that dramatising anti-Semitism, even if the goal is to expose its evils, in itself encourages the stereotyping of Jews.

To counter such depictions the Jewish museums of Berlin and Vienna have put together a joint exhibition entitled Typical! Cliches about Jews and Others to confront the enduring prejudices held by some Germans and Austrians.

Critics are complaining about the clumsy way that the new film tries to distance itself from the dark intentions of the original. Roehler has his dubious hero Marian go on a Nazi-ordered visit to German troops on the site of the future Auschwitz concentration camp. There is the slightest of hints that the Jewish slave workers on the site will be later massacred by the SS just as soon as the troopers have watched Jud Suss. But the director shies away from actually saying that.

"Not so much to protect the nerves of the cinema audiences," said Andreas Kilb, of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "more because he does not want to blacken the image of his main protagonist. In this film, the courage to deal with a dangerous subject walks hand in hand with narrative cowardice."

In reality, SS men did go out and kill Jews after watching the original Jud Suss. "The exaggerated acting performances do little to enlighten us about the Nazi world of moving pictures or even shed light on our present attitudes to those times," said Christiane Peitz, of Der Tagesspiegel. "The film commutes between outright camp and historical correctness."

Yet the critics are agreed on one thing: Germans should grit their teeth and go and see the new work - if only to understand why a film seen by millions of their great-grandparents has been kept under lock and key for the past seven decades.

The Australian