THE BOOTLEG FILES: JUD SUSS

THE BOOTLEG FILES: JUD SUSS

BOOTLEG FILES 265 “Jud Suss” (1940 Nazi propaganda).

LAST SEEN: The film can be found online.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Unauthorized copies only.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: This is not exactly a hot property.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.

One of the more curious aspects of the cinema of Nazi-era Germany was the fact there were relatively few films that were overtly anti-Semitic. Considering that the persecution of Europe’s Jews was the cornerstone of the Nazi doctrine, it might seem peculiar that the hatemongers who ran the Nazi film industry never bothered to go ballistic on the subject.

In fact, there were only three Nazi films (all made in 1940) that espoused anti-Semitism with vicious glee: the phony documentary “The Eternal Jew,” the libelous biopic “The Rothschilds” and “Jud Suss,” which is perhaps the most evil of the trio. Whereas “The Eternal Jew” and “The Rothschilds” represent a crass assault on the emotions with their infantile hatred, “Jud Suss” is a deceptively sophisticated production that appears to come out of a parallel universe where prestige cinema is laced with an obnoxiously vile soul.

The story of “Jud Suss” had a significance long before Hitler came to power. It was based on an 1827 novella about an unscrupulous Jewish businessman who discovers he is actually a Christian. When his financial crimes lead him to prison and a death sentence, he declines to renounce the Jewish faith and goes to his death chanting a Hebrew-language prayer. This novella was adapted into a full-length novel in 1925 by Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish writer. Although both versions play on the stereotype of the dishonest Jewish financier, they also serve as clear condemnations of across-the-board anti-Semitism. A 1934 British film on the subject offered the Jewish anti-hero in a very sympathetic light, but that production had scant distribution and is barely known today.

However, “Jud Suss” was such a well-known story in Germany that Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, ordered a new feature film based on the tale. But whatever sympathetic traces that existed were exorcised in favor of a harsh anti-Semitic philosophy.

But what was genuinely terrifying about “Jud Suss” was that the film was not a crass, crude mess. It was a richly produced, well-directed and effectively acted production. The propaganda is not obvious, but deceptively subtle. Indeed, one could easily lose track of the film’s wretched purpose and get swept up in what is wrapped up and presented as an old-fashioned tale of good versus evil.

“Jud Suss” takes place in 18th century Austria, where the kindly but dim Duke of Wurttemberg lacks the funds to buy jewels for his coronation. He dispatches a courier to Frankfurt to borrow money from Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, a Jewish financier. Oppenheimer, who realizes the opportunity to break away from the Jewish ghetto where he is restricted, offers to provide his jewels to the duke at a significant discount if he is able to travel to Wurttemberg and present them personally. The duchy’s laws excludes Jews from entering the territory, but an exception is made and Oppenheimer is allowed an audience with the duke.

The meeting between Oppenheimer and the duke results in a new partnership. Oppenheimer finances the duke’s coronation celebrations in exchange for having the monopoly on road tolls. This soon extends to new taxes that exhaust the finances of the Wurttemberg population. Oppenheimer also gets the duke to lift the ban on Jewish residences, thus allowing a flock of equally unscrupulous Jews to move into the duchy.

The duke is not concerned, since Oppenheimer’s schemes include a sizeable kickback that engorges the royal treasury. Oppenheimer’s enemy list grows, and one prominent foe is imprisoned and tortured. When the man’s daughter comes to plead for mercy, Oppenheimer forces her to have sex – she complies, but commits suicide afterwards. But when the duke dies of a well-timed heart attack, Oppenheimer is seized, imprisoned, brought to trial and hanged. The Jews who moved into Wurrttemberg are expelled from the duchy.

“Jud Suss” was a major production and no expense was spared. The film boasts a rich production design, with opulent sets and costumes. To depict the teeming masses of the Jewish ghetto, the Nazi government shipped in Jews from occupied Czechoslovakia to fill the ranks of extras.

Ferdinand Marian, an Austrian actor, was recruited to play Oppenheimer. In a postwar interview, Marian insisted that he wanted nothing to do with the film and was forced to accept the role when Goebbels personally threatened the well-being of Marian’s half-Jewish stepson. Whether he was coerced or not, Marian gave an astonishing performance. His Oppenheimer is a quietly seething grotesque who slowly and skillfully turns a once-placid duchy into a cesspool of corruption and evil. His villainous behavior is an assault on the intellect – he is evil for the sake of evil and the actor is fascinating as he quietly enjoys the chaos and pain of his machinations.

To be frank, Oppeneheimer is a memorable villain – the guy you love to hate. And that’s where the problem with “Jud Suss” resonates: this is not a traditional good guy versus bad guy flick, but a sneaky condemnation against an entire group of people. The film pushes the notion of Jewish evil as embodied by a reptilian heel – it becomes acceptable to hate Jews because Oppenheimer is presented as the symbol of the European Jewish community. The message is horrible to today’s viewers, but in 1940 Nazi-controlled Europe, the message was absorbed without question.

Indeed, the scariest thing about “Jud Suss” is not what is on screen, but what followed its screenings. The film was one of the most popular films of the Nazi cinema. Reportedly, it was shown to SS units and concentration camp personnel as a means of justifying the most unjustifiable crime ever perpetrated. In occupied countries, screenings were arranged prior to the deportation of Jewish populations. The response across Europe to this film was without precedent. Outside of Nazi-occupied Europe, however, the film was unknown – the Swedish government, which was neutral during the war, refused to allow it to be screened despite pressure from the German government. Of course, it never played in Allied nations.

After the war, the Allied forces discovered the film and took swift action. Director Veit Harlan was the only filmmaker to be brought to trial for war crimes based, in large part, on “Jud Suss” (he was acquitted and was able to continue his career, albeit without any distinguishing work). Ferdinand Marian was banned from acting and died in an auto crash in 1946 – speculation that he killed himself was never proven. “Jud Suss” was prohibited from being publicly screened by the Allied occupation forces and the subsequent German governments that resumed control of the country in the 1950s.

Today, “Jud Suss” cannot be publicly screened in Germany outside of sanctioned educational presentations. The film’s copyright is owned by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, which does not allow it to be screened frequently. In July 2008, an unauthorized theatrical screening in Budapest, Hungary, created a major stir in Europe.

Not surprisingly, no commercial U.S. video label would think of offering “Jud Suss” as entertainment. Bootleg copies taken from well-worn unauthorized 16mm prints can be located, and one of these prints can be seen in its entirety online.

“Jud Suss” deserves to be seen, if only to confirm the dangers of cinematic propaganda. In many ways, it is the cruelest movie ever made.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on January 9, 2009 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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