by Harlan Kennedy


They were like fiery parentheses or blazing brackets. One film all but opened the 60th Berlin Film Festival, the other all but closed it. 60 years ago it might have closed it. Even as late as 1950, in Germany’s tormented evolution in the last century, the country was barely ready for JUD SÜSS – RISE AND FALL. Oskar Roehler’s new film, savaging the generation that devoted its finest movie minds to putting anti-Semitic propaganda on screen, tells the story of the original JUD SÜSS (1941), a historical movie conceived by Josef Goebbels with the aim of demonising the Jewish race. JUD SÜSS 1 has become notorious over the years. Still banned in Germany, it is widely credited – or damned – as having clinched Hitler’s conquest of public opinion regarding ‘the Jewish question.’

Wanting a film so strong it would poison a race’s name forever, or for the 1,000 years of the anticipated Reich, Goebbels appointed a top director, Veit Harlan and a little-known but soon world-infamous actor, Ferdinand Marian, to present the story of the malevolent title character. ‘Jew Suss’ ends on the gallows after a colourfully duplicitous swathe through late mediaeval history.



A week before JUD SÜSS 2 showed at Berlin, at the other end of the Competition, Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND demonstrated that America too is still obsessed, if only or mainly for its grand guignol potential, with the Holocaust. Scorsese’s film makes a phantasmagoric blaze from the kindling of Denis ‘Mystic River’ Lehane’s bestselling novel. Police detective Leonardo DiCaprio, put ashore on an island mental asylum off Boston harbour, is investigating a murder. (Or is he? Stay tuned). He meets the doctors and wardens, who since the year is 1954 and America is still not out of the postwar forest, are a bunch of sinister weirdoes mothered by Hollywood but fathered by German Expressionism.

Ben Kingsley is a silky Euro-doctor. Max Von Sydow seems to have caught a secret shuttle from Nuremberg. And how long before DiCaprio himself – as hinted in Scorsese-esque flashbacks – is revealed as an ex-US army man who, to his eternal trauma, was there at the liberation of Dachau?

These two films, one from the ex-Allies, one from the ex-Axis, prove something odd and hypnotic. Nazism and its heritage still haven’t climbed out of the collective world Alpentraum, or nightmare. They still haven’t puffed their way up to Lucidity Peak, from where the view is clear and the past is spread cleanly below us. We are still – seven decades on – writhing a little in our sleep, trying to process the un-processable.

JUD SÜSS – RISE AND FALL is fascinating because it has more life than it should. Life of the wrong kind, some will argue, but still life. We expected a solidly researched, worthy, possibly staid reconstruction of a 70-year-old cause maudit. Instead the film is a little mad: mad like a melodrama from the 1940s, filmed in a St Vitus flicker of shadowy near-monochrome as it ranges kitschily across the years (until a volitional car crash ends its actor-hero) with every cast member playing to the hilt and some beyond. German cinema’s unbiquitous Moritz Bleibtreu – most recent major role, Andreas Baader – plays Josef Goebbels as a Teutonic cousin to Richard III. Gimping gait, florid gestures, barking delivery. Laurence Olivier, eat your art out.

Roehler’s JUD SÜSS is good bad cinema. A German populace that has never been allowed to see the original film – an outdated and absurd embargo – may be bewildered by this riotous aesthetic response to an invisible template. Most of Germany, though, has heard of the first JUD SÜSS, at least, and its demonic reputation, so is probably ready for the riposte. And eager for a colourful one.



Martin Scorsese lives in a country where it has been open season for Holocaust-decrying ever since the Holocaust. You would think the bonfire of righteous rage would have burned out. But SHUTTER ISLAND is a complex essay in incendiary psychodrama. It almost suggests the Holocaust has travelled across the Atlantic and still lurks offshore living and unextinguished – like the Dresden firestorms that refused to be put out by water.

‘Detective’ Leonardo DiCaprio and his ‘colleague’ Mark Ruffalo – remember, nothing is what it seems – need only boat a mile or so out of mainland Massachusetts to find a world that negates the Pilgrims’ landing, puts sanity and clarity in the dock, annihilates 230 years of American cleansing and quarantining, so that the country can step afresh into the atavistic infection of world guilt.

What’s the message?  That world cataclysms mess up the world’s mind. That they can do so for decades. This is a 1954 story that refers back to the 1940s and is being told in 2010. That’s a three-score-years-and-ten span. The secret argument of SHUTTER ISLAND is that we store up new ghosts even as we exorcise, or think we exorcise, the old ones. Implies the movie: we can expect the cupboard to rattle, in near and far time, with Iraq and Afghanistan as it rattles here with Nazism and several other ‘isms’, including McCarthyism, that were dancing skeletons in the middle of the 20th century.

Ghosts live with us longer than we want. New guilts and old guilts feed on each other, refreshing and sustaining the spectral population. JUD SÜSS – RISE AND FALL moves the exorcism plot along a little, without ever suggesting that our minds are rid, yet, of recent Germany’s worst ghouls and spectres. If audiences can see Goebbels as a Shakespearian villain, a subject for antic ridicule and camp horror, then the country has grown up a little (you could argue). But he isn’t the only demon in Roehler’s film; just the showiest one. Elsewhere, like the characters in the dark corners of SHUTTER ISLAND, who protest their inculpability while the lighthouse beam of judgment keeps catching them in incriminating postures, no one is quite an ‘extra’ in a demonic or dictatorial period of history. We all have lines to say. Those lines are only likely to be blameless and innocent if we make sure we have written them ourselves and are not ‘obeying orders.’






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved