In my Jewish/German studies class this semester, part of the syllabus was watching the Nazi propaganda film Jud Suss (1940), which is really complicated to discuss. As it was explained in class, it was released in 1940 in order to gear up Nazi-occupied Europe for the Final Solution. Over 20 million people saw it at the time and it was a hit worldwide, but in retrospect it is disgusting.
It was marketed as a historical melodrama, which was one of the main genres produced by the Nazi film industry. As much as it’s remembered for propaganda like The Triumph of the Will, Nazi cinema was geared more toward producing Hollywood-style comedies, dramas, and musicals. Only a small percentage of these products are considered to be anti-Semitic, however Jud Suss is evidence enough that the Final Solution was disseminated across all media.
Loosely based off the historical figure Joseph Suss Oppenheimer and the 1925 novel, Jud Suss is about how a Jewish money lender becomes the head adviser to the Duke, corrupting him, his duchy, and German women. While a Jud Suss existed in history, the plot has been twisted far away from fact in order to match up with Nazi ideology. The opening titles begin with the phrase “Based off of historical documents,” as a way for the Nazis to present this to the public as evidence against Judaism.
All of these facts about the movie puts an important frame of mind for the modern viewer. It was designed to create violence against Jews in Europe. The actual plot is more about a historical melodrama, where a villain corrupts a state and a young girl, before being lawfully killed. There’s a large focus on having the trial be systematic instead of revenge, but the final decree that the film ends on is for forcing the Jews out of their city.
I can’t say it’s not a well made movie though. Most of the camera work and special effects reminded me of Citizen Kane with their ingenuity. There are several crane shots that come to mind, just thinking over the technical feats.
It’s important to note that the director Veit Harlan was the only director in the Nazi film production to be charged with war crimes. It’s also strange to note that Jud Suss wasn’t just a German hit, but a worldwide popular movie.