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Film / Jew Süss (1940)

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Jud Süß (Jew Süss) is a 1940 German Period Piece produced by Terra Film at the behest of Nazi Germany's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, directed by Veit Harlan and loosely based on the 1925 novel of the same name by Lion Feuchtwanger. It is one of the most infamous antisemitic propaganda films ever made, and starred Ferdinand Marian, Kristina Söderbaum (Veit Harlan's wife), Werner Krauss and Heinrich George.

In the 18th century, Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg begins his reign promising to rule with loyalty and honesty, but his cunning Jewish treasurer Josef Süss Oppenheimer corrupts him and enriches himself on the back of the citizens, causing them to complain and pushing Württemberg to the brink of civil war.

Accounts of the film's production are Shrouded in Myth, due to its notoriety and the later attempts of its cast and crew to distance themselves from it. Both Veit Harlan and Ferdinand Marian claimed that they were forced into making the film against their will, and that Goebbels micromanaged the production to the extent of ordering script rewrites and countermanding efforts by both director and actor to mitigate the film's antisemitism. In particular, Harlan recalled that he gave Oppenheimer a Motive Rant prior to his execution, but this was deemed unacceptable by Goebbels for humanizing its Jewish villain and excised from the finished film.

Whether Harlan, in particular, is reliable in his recollections about the film is debatable; after World War II he was tried for crimes against humanity and, though acquitted, he and Kristina Söderbaum were banned from working in film for over a decade. Marian's resentment is better documented; he was haunted by Jud Süß and ultimately Driven to Suicide by his participation several years later. Regardless, the film was a passion project for Goebbels, and Harlan would have been hard-pressed to disobey him even if he'd been so inclined.

The movie's direct impact on The Holocaust is undeniable. Upon its initial release during World War II, it caused antisemitic riots in Vienna and attacks on Jews in other cities across Europe. Conversely, theaters showing it in occupied Paris were bombed by the French Resistance. It was also shown to SS trainees during the war, and even screened for guards at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Unsurprisingly, Jud Süß was banned in postwar Germany, Austria and several other countries and can only be screened there for educational purposes.

Should NOT be confused with the 1934 British film of the same name. Both are based on the same novel, but the 1934 film adapts the novel faithfully and actually condemns antisemitism. The production of this film was dramatized in 2010 German movie Jew Süss: Rise and Fall.

Jew Süss provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Deviation: The novel's writer, Lion Feuchtwanger (who was Jewish himself), intended his portrayal of Süss as a study of the tragedy caused by the human weaknesses of greed, pride and ambition. This film turned that Tragic Hero story into a purely antisemitic slur, by considering said human traits as defining and instinctive for Jews.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the original novel, Oppenheimer was a Tragic Hero, but here he is portrayed as a villain for propaganda purposes.
  • Angry Mob: At the end of the film, the enraged citizens of Württemberg form a mob on par with any Universal Horror film.
  • Artistic License – Religion: Very few things this film portrays about Judaism bears any resemblance to the actual religion. Most notably, actual Rabbis do not practice astrology or mysticism.
  • Call-Forward: The film ends with Sturm declaring that all Jews will be expelled from Württemberg. He then says "May our descendants adhere to this decree," for their own sakes "and for the sakes of their children's children," an obvious allusion to the Nazi persecution of the Jews that was going on in Germany at the time of the film's release. In fact the final expulsion of German Jews to the east, and the death camps, would start happening not long after this film was released.
  • The Corrupter: Suss manipulates the Duke into giving him more wealth and power.
  • The Coup: When the council objects to the Duke's increasing usurpation of power and abrogation of the constitution, Süß suggests to him that he should dismiss the council so that the country can be ruled by an absolute monarch.
  • Dark Is Evil: Süss is portrayed as evil, and dresses in black before he shaves his beard, cuts his payots and dons gentile noble clothes.
  • Darker and Edgier: Even without the Nazi propaganda aspect, this film is much darker and more violent than the original novel or the British 1934 film version.
  • Defiled Forever: How the film perceives Dorothea after being raped by Oppenheimer.
  • Dirty Old Man: Part of the way that Oppenheimer gets his hooks into Duke Karl is by playing into the fact that Duke Karl is a pervert. He arranges for the leading citizens of Stuttgart to bring their daughters to a ball, and then has the best-looking ones separated from the group for Duke Karl to ogle and fondle. He hefts the breast of one attractive young lady, then orders another, who is weeping, to show him her legs.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dorothea drowns herself in a lake after being brutally raped by Oppenheimer in exchange for saving her lover. The actress Kristina Söderbaum, became known for playing rape victims who commit suicide by drowning in many films directed by her husband. The public eventually gave her the moniker Reichswasserleiche; "Reich" is "realm/country/nation" and "Wasserleiche" literally translates as "water corpse", meaning a corpse found in the water and almost always a drowning victim. So, an equivalent moniker in English would be "[our] national drownee.”
  • Dull Surprise: Dorothea pouts when Oppenheimer throws her on the bed and then looks mildly annoyed as he proceeds to rape her.
  • Evil Chancellor: Suss becomes one to the Duke.
  • Fingore: Oppenheimer has Faber put in a torture chamber, where Faber's fingers are crushed in a vise. He does this to try and get Dorothea to yield to his advances.
  • Gratuitous Rape: The scene where Oppenheimer rapes Dorothea is surprisingly violent and graphic for a glossy mainstream studio film made in 1940.
  • Greedy Jew: In spades, and played straight. In short, the film portrays Jewish people, and Süss in particular, as being materialistic, corrupting, immoral, cunning and overall untrustworthy.
  • He's Dead, Jim: The Duke is screaming at his subjects when he keels over. One man leans over him and says "He's dead," and that is it for the duke.
  • High-Class Glass: Duke Karl Alexander has a monocle on a stick, which is even more pretentious, and helps to establish him as a sleazy libertine.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Josef Süss Oppenheimer, by way of all the negative stereotypes associated with Greedy Jew.
  • In Name Only: The film only uses the basic premise of the novel; the actual plot plays out more like a 18th century and more anti-Semitic German version of The Merchant of Venice.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: A variation. Most of the characters in the movie do not refer to Oppenheimer by name, instead only calling him "the Jew." Particularly noticeable in a scene where Duke Karl's courtier says "Do you know how much you owe the Jew?", while Oppenheimer is standing right there.
  • Kubrick Stare: Suss shoots one at Faber when Faber, who recognizes him as a Jew, says in a hostile manner that he'd better get out of town, Jews being forbidden to be in Stuttgart.
  • Match Cut:
    • From a shot of coins that Oppenheimer spills on a table, as he's offering to pay for Duke Karl's ballet, to a shot of the ballet dancers twirling around.
    • Duke Karl Alexander sits at his desk while one of his old friends, standing to the Duke's right, entreats him to reverse himself and expel the Jews from Stuttgart. Cut to Oppenheimer and Levy at Oppenheimer's desk outside, in the exact same position, as Levy tells Oppenheimer what's happening in the inner office.
  • Older and Wiser: Rabbi Loew, who advises Süss not to seek direct positions of power over the gentiles, telling him that if he really wants power over them, he should stick to controlling money.
  • Period Piece: The film is set in the 18th century and boasts costumes and settings accordingly. This was actually one of the film's main selling points to the German public as opposed to the comparatively unsuccessful Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) — people would easily go to the theaters to watch an engaging period drama, but less so for a crass and unsettling (pseudo-)documentary, which the latter is.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Rabbi Loew discusses this with Suss, warning him his greed and megalomania will bring about his downfall but Suss ignores him to his eventual peril.
  • Propaganda Machine: The film itself is one of the most well known examples of state-funded antisemitic propaganda.
  • Rape as Drama: An especially devious and diabolical example.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: How the townsfolk justify Oppenheimer’s lynching.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The townsfolk finally snap once Dorothea's body is found in the lake and lash out at Oppenheimer and the rest of the Jews who settled in the city.
  • Suicide by Sea: Dorothea’s chosen suicide method, only in a lake.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The terrifying ending has a torch-wielding mob come after Oppenheimer; they seize him after the Duke suddenly dies.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was a real person, who really did become financial advisor to Duke Karl Alexander in 1730s Stuttgart. He was also put on trial and executed in Real Life, after the Duke died. That being said, in real life it was almost certainly a case of judicial murder by Stuttgart anti-Semites, and earlier fictionalizations of this story portrayed Oppenheimer as a sympathetic Tragic Hero. The Nazis, naturally, portrayed him as evil, as part of their antisemitic propaganda.