Wednesday, March 28, 2012

JEW SÜSS (1934)

In Wurtemberg in 1730, intolerance, particularly anti-Semitism, is rampant, but the Jewish widower Jospeh Süss Oppenheimer will do anything for power, both personal and political. His rabbi warns him away from this path, but with encouragement from his friend Landauer, he eventually insinuates himself in the inner circle of Prince Karl Alexander. When the rabbi reads Karl's palm, he says he sees a dukedom in his future, and sure enough, the old Duke dies, making the rabbi's prediction come true. Soon Süss (pronounced Zeus) is the Duke's financial advisor and becomes a powerful figure in his own right, knowing how to curry favor: when Süss is called upon to help the Duke get the attention of the lovely Marie Auguste, he does so even though he loves her himself. When a man blames a Jew for killing a young girl for her blood (to use in Passover rituals), Süss goes to the Duke to ask him to pardon the man, even threatening to quit his position, and the Duke reluctantly issues the pardon. When the Duke meets Süss's young daughter Naomi, he tries to seduce her; she goes running away from him across a roof and falls to her death (whether it's an accident or a suicide is unclear). Süss holds his torment inside, but when the Duke levies punishing taxes on the people and begins scheming with subversives to abolish Parliament, Süss rebels, calling the Duke "an absurd lump of flesh—totally ridiculous." The Duke's reaction is to drop dead of a heart attack. Without the Duke's protection, Süss is arrested for subversion and for having carnal knowledge of Gentile women. He is offered a deal: renounce his Judaism or die. Despite the fact that he has recently learned that his father was not Jewish but Christian, Süss refuses the deal and goes to his death.

This movie is based on a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger which was also the basis for the notorious 1940 German film of the same title, a piece of viciously anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda which turns the story on its head and makes Süss a murdering, raping villain. In this film, Süss is not heroic or likeable, but is mostly sympathetic; you understand his frustration with his station in life and with the fact that all the power he manages to get hold of doesn't save him from misery and prejudice. Conrad Veidt is excellent in the lead role, never pandering for easy feel-good sympathy from the audience. Cedric Hardwicke (pictured above with Veidt on the left) is almost chilling as the somewhat scary rabbi, and German actor Paul Graetz is fine as Landauer. Pamela Ostrer, later Pamela Mason, the wife of James Mason, is appropriately delicate as Naomi. The look of the film is interesting, bordering on expressionism with interesting use of shadows and odd camera angles. A rarity that is worth catching. [TCM]

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