This Day in Jewish History, 1940

'Jud Suss,' Most Virtuoso of anti-Semitic Films, Premiers in Berlin

Goebbels had to blackmail actors into performing in the subtly-done propaganda movie about an iniquitous Jewish financier.

On September 24, 1940, the notorious “Jud Süss,” the most insidious of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda films, had its premiere in Berlin. The movie was one of a small number of feature films of the era intended specifically to stir up anti-Semitic emotions, in particular among German soldiers about to head off to the front and among citizens of lands newly occupied by the Germans.

Unlike the far more crude Ewige Jud (“The Eternal Jew”,) of the same year, which was so repellent in its depiction of Jews that many Germans found it difficult to watch, “Jud Süss,” was, though hardly subtle in its message, made with sophistication and artistry, and thus much more effective in hitting home.

“Jud Süss” was the title of a 1925 novel by the Jewish-German writer Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958,) a fictional account of the life of the real-life Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, a Jewish financier and political adviser to the 18th-century Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, who fell from grace after the duke’s death and was executed in a gruesome popular spectacle.

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Feuchtwanger’s account of Oppenheimer was sympathetic, and served as the basis for a similarly sympathetic film version, made in the United Kingdom in 1934.

It is said that German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who was acutely sensitive to the power of cinema as a tool for mobilizing the masses, wanted to counteract the emotional power of the British movie, directed by Lothar Mendes, a recent émigré from Nazi Germany. This would be done by transforming its protagonist from a flawed character who becomes a victim of anti-Semitic sentiment — and who, in Feuchtwanger’s telling, heroically rejects an opportunity to save himself from execution by converting to Christianity — into an immoral and rapacious villain who, when he is brought down, begs (in vain) to have his life spared.

Officially, the German remake was adapted from an earlier fictional account of the Oppenheimer tale, written in 1827 by German writer Wilhelm Hauff.

Accounts of the making of “Jud Süss,” which had a lavish budget of 2 million Reichsmarks, suggest that many of those who participated were reluctant to be involved — although some of them may have been rewriting their personal histories after the Nazis’ defeat. Still, it does seem that Goebbels, who took a micro-manager’s role in the production of “Jud Süss,” bullied several actors into participating. He also demanded frequent rewrites of the script, and took an active role in the editing.

One tool at Goebbels’ disposal was blackmail. As Josef Skvorecky noted, in an essay on the film, “many participants in the violently racist project had either Jewish spouses or relatives, were disciples of Jewish artists and known friends or Jews, or had been— before the Nazi takeover — left-leaning intellectuals, even communists.”

Director Veit Harlan, the only person associated with the movie who actually stood trial after the war for crimes against humanity, specifically in connection with the movie — he was acquitted — claimed that he offered to volunteer for active army duty if Goebbels would release him from the cinematic assignment. Goebbels refused.

Many of the film’s most effective elements are attributed to Harlan, whose wife, Kristina Soderbaum, played the role of the Aryan maiden, Dorothea, who is raped by Suss, and who ends up drowning herself.

When it was screened, the movie included a disclaimer noting that none of the actors were Jews, and that all were of “pure Aryan blood.” The exception to this were the Jewish extras who were coerced into appearing in several scenes that were shot in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.

Otherwise, filming was done at the Babelsberg Studios, outside Berlin, beginning in March 1940.

The movie’s world premiere took place at the Venice Film Festival on September 8, 1940, where it won the top prize, the Golden Lion.

In Germany, where it premiered 16 days later, at the UFA Palast am Zoo cinema, “Jud Suss” drew some 20 million viewers (the country’s total population was then 70 million), and grossed 6.5 million Reichsmarks at the box office.