Jud Süß (1940), directed by Veit Harlan: Full film streaming above with English subtitles.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, believed in producing high-quality products. In order for propaganda to be effective, it had to be well-made, subtle in its messaging, and—most importantly—entertaining so that it could appeal to the widest audience possible. Under his auspices, this stylish costume drama, based very loosely on the life of an 18th-century court Jew, Joseph Süß Oppenheimer (1698-1738), was seen by over 20 million Germans when it debuted in 1940.
The film is an anti-Semitic historical fantasy about the rise and fall of Oppenheimer at the court of Duke Karl Alexander. On his way to becoming one of the Duke’s most trusted advisers, Oppenheimer convinced the Duke to let the poor and filthy-looking Jews leave their ghettos and come settle in the town of Württemberg, let the Duke spend extravagantly in order to gain his influence and trust, implemented exorbitant taxes on the ordinary citizens of the town, slept with German women at court, and finally— in an act that reveals the depths of Oppenheimer’s depravity—raped the heroine Dorothea Sturm (played by the model for ‘Aryan’ beauty, the director’s wife Kristina Soderbaum), who happened to be the daughter of an influential merchant and town elder. Driven by shame, she then drowned herself in a river.
The anti-Semitic message is clear: If you let the ‘Aryan’ Germans and the Jews mix, you are essentially contributing to the breakdown of the social order: The virtue of German women will be compromised, ordinary townspeople will be exploited, and the parasitic Jews—whose only fealty is to money and other Jews—will run roughshod over the German people for profit and sexual gratification, if we let them!
Much has been written about Jud Süß as a piece of propaganda, but I think the best way to look at it is as a Bourgeois Family Tragedy.
Linda Schulte-Sasse says
Jud Süß borrows the basic scenario of the bourgeois tragedy; its plot likewise revolves around the disruption of social harmony and the invasion of familial bliss by figures initiating courtly intrigue. Here, too, the family, in which the viewer quickly develops an emotional investment, represents a microcosm for the State; the violation against the Sturms stands for that against Wurttemberg. Yet Jud Süß departs from the bourgeois tragedy in an essential way; namely, the film displaces the source of evil usually ascribed to the aristocracy to the Jew.
But what, according to the worldview espoused by the film, are the bourgeois family values that are being threatened by the Jews?
The following scheme summarizes the class coding of the bourgeois tragedy: love, fidelity, honesty; dedication to community; humanity, sympathy, conscience; ‘virtue’ above the material; tenderness, love; women domestic, virtuous; straightforward language; kindness; forgiveness, trust.
The values of the aristocracy (but in this film attributed to the Jews) are:
intrigue; politics; ambition (power, personal glory); materialism; sexual pleasure (amusement); women as objects; use of French terms; gallantry, politesse; revenge.
Isn’t it interesting that these aristocratic, ‘shallow’ values were then ascribed to the bourgeoisie much later on with the waning of aristocratic power and the rise of industrial capitalism?