I wrote most of this in November but never had a chance to prepare it for posting until now.
During the Third Reich the anti-Jewish propaganda included movies like 1943's Jud Süß. Movies like these are now almost impossible to watch. The copyrights are under the control of a foundation, which limits their showing to situations where they will be properly contextualized and discussed. Bucerius was able to satisfy these requirements and [in mid November] showed the movie.
Before it began faculty members gave presentations about the historical context of the movie and the anti-Jewish laws from the era. It was the first time I'd ever seen the Nuerenberg law themselves, spelled out in their full legal awfulness. But there they were, up on a powerpoint slide, while a professor explained their evolution. Even though they were written entirely in their original German, I found I was able to read them. For the first time I didn't need to be told how terrible these laws were; I could finally see it for myself.
I went to the showing of the movie, even though it and all the presentations were entirely in German – a language I only barely understand. I felt I needed to. But I didn't know what to expect from the movie. I knew it was anti-Jewish, but I suppose I was expecting something with the vehement energy like "Triumph of the Will." The prospect of seeing something like that directed towards Jews actually frightened me to the point of physical unease. I decided it would be best to sit with some friends, rather than alone, but I got really annoyed with their inability to understand my anxiety. "It'll just be a movie about dark-haired people," one said. "Not people like you." To him, because the whole pretense of the movie was invalid, it rendered the movie harmless. I wasn't so sure about that. "What do you mean, 'it's not about me?' This movie may very well turn out to be an hour and a half of the message equivalent, 'Kill Cathy! Kill Cathy!'"
It turned out we were both wrong. Jews were not characterized as being strictly dark-haired, and the anti-Semitism, though overt, was somewhat more subtly conveyed.
In a way the movie was somewhat harmless though, just because it was of such poor cinematic quality. It was so dreadful I even almost laughed at one point, it was so contrived. But while I doubt the film could have the same effect today – it's so terrible as a dramatic work it's so easy to see through – I can see how it could have stoked the anti-Jewish fervor of a people already comfortable with pogroms and expulsions.
The film told the story, warped in its own wicked way, of a count and Jewish financier named Oppenheimer who lived in the early 18th century. There is a certain historical truth to this story: these two people did live during that time, something did go south in the course of their relationship, and it all ended in tragedy (the count died of a heart attack, and Oppenheimer was hanged). Some of the specific details are shrouded in history, but that didn't stop the filmmakers from filling in the gaps according to their hateful viewpoint in order to use their movie as "proof" that Jews were no-good opportunists out to make a buck at all costs, and rape German daughters.
It was difficult for me to understand the movie's dialog but I could understand the visual imagery. It was quite bold in its manipulativeness. The movie opened with a scene of a young German man and woman – she so perky and pure and blonde – madly and happily in love. All is good in the world until Oppenheimer comes to town. From what I could gather, he came following a visit by the count to his shop, whereupon he apparently realized that a fortune could be made by underwriting the count's activities. So he shaved his beard and put on fashionable clothing of the period, and simpered and smirked until he'd convinced the count to accept his financial support. He also manage to wrangle an influential political position out of the relationship.
But the movie explains that Oppenheim was up to no good. First he let the Jews move into town. (The movie showed their wagon train arrive, full of dirty, uncivilized, sickly people.) Then Oppenheimer let nothing stand in the way of what he wanted. For instance, when he wanted to build a road where a house stood, he ignored the desperate pleadings of its residents and had it knocked down. Meanwhile, his influence with the count grew ever stronger. Even as his critics grew louder the count remained steadfast in his support.
And then there was the subplot. Oppenheim had his eye on the pure blonde young woman from the opening scene and apparently would stop at nothing to get her. He arranged to have her husband arrested and tortured, allowing the torture to be stopped only when she at last consented to sleep with him. In the next scene (with no explanation) she is seen staggering into a field. In the next one (also with no explanation) she's dead. Soon after the count dies of a heart attack, and without his ally Oppenheimer was arrested.
During his trial Oppenheimer is shown to have let himself go. His fashionable clothes are now rags, and his scraggly beard is back. He looks like he did in the very first scene, the Jew he always was no matter how much he covered it up.
The movie was extremely heavy-handed in driving home its "points." According to the movie, Jews were dirty and sickly, scheming and manipulative, conniving and cruel. They engaged in weird rituals and practices. They were the antithesis of everything good and German, and no matter how nicely they cleaned up they would never be anything more than Jews, completely adverse to the interests of pure, decent Germans.
The movie didn't just say these things; the movie showed the German characters slowly coming to realize this cold, hard "truth." At first they were so trusting! Even the innocent blonde woman had given Oppenheimer a ride into town in her wagon when his stagecoach had crashed, obviously taken in by his cunningly devious charm. But then, all too late, they learned the apparent error in their judgment.
This is where the movie's real power is. Because in trying to teach an audience its message of hate it modeled the very reaction it sought, and then used powerful, contrasting imagery to drive the point home.