Jud Süß, the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda commissioned by Joseph Goebbels in 1940, is a bit like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation was the inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Heinrich Himmler ordered Jud Süß to be shown to SS units about to be sent against Jews, to non-Jewish populations of areas where Jews were about to be deported, and to concentration camp guards. It’s not only a hateful film. It’s flat out incitement to murder.
So it was with some trepidation that I watched it, and it’s with even more trepidation that I write about it. Birth of a Nation, an old silent film, can be viewed as a museum piece, a tutorial in the development of the early cinema. Its portrayal of black Americans is so crude and so over the top it’s not likely to inspire very many people to join the Ku Klux Klan in 2014. Jud Süß is propaganda of a different order. In keeping with his theory that the most effective propaganda was subtle and indirect, that it should, according to historian Stephen Lee, “convey its message within the context of a story with which the audience could identify,” Joseph Goebbels commissioned the talented filmmaker Veit Harlan, and a cast of A-list German actors, including the Swedish born film start Kristina Söderbaum.
Unlike Birth of a Nation, Jud Süß personifies the racial other as a compelling anti-hero that an audience might possibilty identify with. Halfway through, you realize, to your horror, that it’s actually a well-made, well-acted, well-written film. It’s effective propaganda. What’s more, Jud Süß is not an obviously right-wing, authoritarian film like Triumph of the Will. On the contrary, at first glance it almost feels like that left-wing, “socialist” Nazism your crazy teabagger uncle is always warning you about.
Looked at more closely, it’s actually a right-wing populist, anti-government melodrama driven by conspiracy theory, much closer to Alex Jones and David Icke than it is to The Communist Manifesto. Charles Alexander, the Duke of Württemberg is a fat, lazy, dissolute politician with a taste for high living and underage women. Without the money for a coronation gift for the duchess, he arranges to borrow money from Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a Jewish moneylender. Oppenheimer insists that he come to to the city, from which Jews had been banned for centuries, to present an expensive set of jewerly in person. The Duke of Württemberg agrees, giving Oppenheimer, who shaves his beard and cuts his hair in order to disguise himself as a gentile, a set of forged papers.
On the way to the city, Oppenheimer runs his carriage off the road. He’s picked up and driven the rest of the way by Dorothea Sturm, Kristina Söderbaum, a “pure” Aryan maiden who incites all of lustful desire for revenge against the gentile oppressor via miscegenation. But Joseph Oppenheimer is no out of control freedman from Birth of a Nation. He’s a sly, clever man who knows how to bide his time before he makes his move. Like a good drug dealer, he knows how to give the first few hits at a discounted price in order to get his mark hooked. The Duke of Württemberg, a big government “tax and spend liberal” — “liberal” by the definition of Fox News — also wants to start an ambitious program of modernizing the city. He wants an opera house, a bodyguard, and a ballet company. Oppenheimer agrees to finance these a well, wanting only the authority to maintain the roads and bridges of the dukedom for 10 years, as well as the right to levy tolls for their use and upkeep. Soon he has the Duke wrapped around his finger, letting him skim a percentage of the profits off the top as a further incentive.
So what does Oppenheimer want (apart from bedding Dorothea Sturm)? He wants the Duke to lift the ban of Jews from living in Württemberg. In the eyes of an anti-Semite of course this makes him a villain, but what about the rest of us? Isn’t Oppenheimer just a good politician? Indeed, you can almost see Joseph Goebbels nervously reviewing the script in order to make sure that Oppenheimer does not come across as a sympathetic anti-hero.
Whether or not Oppenheimer is just a good Machiavellian using trying to liberate his people “by any means necessary,” however, is beside the point. The horde of dirty, disreputable, lower class Jews — eastern Jews as opposed to Oppenheimer’s assimilated western Jew — clearly don’t deserve to be liberated. What’s more, Joseph Oppenheimer is more interested in revenge against the gentile than he is with liberating the Jews. Soon Württemberg has become the nightmare big government “liberal” state libertarians have always warned us against. Prices go up. Oppenheimer secures the right to collect taxes on beer, wine, and wheat. He brings in prostitutes. He seduces the aristocracy with the promise of sex with under age girls. He invokes eminent domain to deprive a hard working blacksmith of half his house, than manipulates the Duke into having him hanged when he objects.
In short, an Aryan Bedford Falls becomes a Jewish Pottersville.
The rest of the film is just crude melodrama. The people start getting restless. They break out the pitchforks and torches and organize their own tea parties. Oppenheimer convinces the Duke to suspend the Constitution and set himself up as a dictator with absolute power. They travel to Ludwigsburg to hire mercenaries (funded by the city’s Jewish population of course) to put down any potential rebellion. Oppenheimer has Dorothea’s fiancée Faber, the film’s most fervid anti-Semite, tortured, while he rapes her across the street from the dungeon to the sound of her virtuous Aryan lover’s screams. Dorothea commits suicide, becoming a martyr, and inspiring the overthrow of the Duke. The Constitution is restored. Oppenheimer is hanged, and Jews are once again banished from Württemberg.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Astonishingly, in 1940, on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Goebbels made an anti-government melodrama. Let me repeat that. Jud Süß is an anti-government film. The Nazis made an anti-government film. Was that clear? Jud Süß attempts to channel any potential anger that the German people might have had over living under a dictatorship against the same Jews that very Nazi dictatorship was persecuting. We don’t have to ask if it worked or not. Roger Ailes learned the lessons of Nazi propaganda well. By deflecting the anger of the American people over George Bush’s surveillance and torture state and Obama’s bailout of Wall Street against the working class and against blacks, Fox News does on a daily basis what Jud Süß did all the way back in 1940, makes the victims the oppressors and the oppressors the victims. Jud Süß is authoritarian propaganda that knows it has to pose as anti-authoritarian. If Triumph of the Will was George W. Bush landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declaring “mission accomplished,” Jud Süß is the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones. Right-wing populism never seems to go away.