Unlike the horrifically antisemitic 1940 Nazi propaganda film, Lothar Mendes’ adaptation of Lion Feuchtwanger’s book offers a fairly sympathetic depiction of a Jew (Conrad Veidt) who seeks political power in order to improve the plight of Germany’s Jewry. Despite some unpleasant stereotypes – Suss is scheming and ruthless – the film is ultimately on his side, and the ending is deeply moving.
While films about the rise of fascism in Europe were hindered by censorship, producer Michael Balcon hoped that the scenes of racism would draw attention to the Nazi persecution of Jews, despite the 18th century setting. The scene in which a Jew is falsely accused of killing a Christian woman, to use her blood for Passover rituals (the notorious ‘blood libel’), is particularly disturbing. The film was a box-office success, although Observer critic CA Lejeune suggested that the money should have been spent on a feature about British industry rather than “a film about a little German municipality of 200 years ago”.
Anthony Clark wrote:
1930s British cinema’s ability to make films that dealt with Europe’s rising tide of fascism was hindered by censorship – politics at the pictures was strictly forbidden. However, filmmakers found oblique ways around the ban, as in the case of Jew Süss (d. Lothar Mendes, 1934), which substituted Germany in 1730 for the modern German state. Producer Michael Balcon hoped the film, based on Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel about a wealthy Jew’s rise to power, would draw attention to Nazi atrocities.
Expatriate German actor Conrad Veidt, who saw friends and colleagues threatened by his country’s escalating anti-Semitism, agreed to play the leading role in the hope the production would act as covert propaganda. His conviction that Germany’s fascists needed challenging was born out of personal experience. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s head of propaganda, had tried to keep the popular star in Germany, first by offering Veidt’s half-Jewish wife, Lily Preger, an Aryan certificate, and later with house arrest.
Unfortunately, Jew Süss, although well-intentioned, is deeply flawed. Rather than abandoning the anti-Semitic stereotyping that was proving such a productive weapon in the hands of the fascists, the film weaves it into its narrative. Early in the film, soon after Süss (Veidt) has befriended the drunken and corrupt Duke Karl Alexander (Frank Vosper), his Rabbi uncle arrives and is pressurised into reading the devious nobleman’s palm – a set of predictions that come true. Süss himself is seen as scheming and good with money, traits, along with alleged ‘mysticism’, that Germany’s Nazis were using to good effect in their propaganda.
The film is partly redeemed by Veidt’s portrayal of Süss as a man driven by the need to find power and influence in the hope of bettering the life of all Jews. His allegiance to Duke Alexander – his route to power – clearly troubles him, but it’s hard to sympathise with a person who can remain in the employment of the man who killed his daughter while attempting to rape her.
The subplot, about a Jewish trader wrongfully accused of murder, is far more unsettling than the plight of Süss. An angry mob rounds on the innocent stallholder, convinced that he killed in pursuit of Christian blood for mystic Passover rituals. By the time Süss succumbs to his conscience and enacts his vengeance on the Duke, the film’s pro-Jewish message has been lost to a more straightforward revenge narrative.
David Sterritt wrote:
Produced by the great Michael Balcon, who worked with such gifted directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Flaherty during his long career, the British version of Jew Süss boasted a budget of 100,000 pounds, set designs by the brilliant Alfred Junge, and a large supporting cast including Cedric Hardwicke, who plays Rabbi Gabriel, the protagonist’s mentor and confidante, in another of his stiff, one-note performances. These ingredients are capably handled by German-born director Lothar Mendes, but the picture was a box-office failure anyway, regarded with suspicion by American Jews and with hostility by Nazi Germany, which had briefly barred Veidt from traveling to England and acting in the production. New York Times reviewer Andre Sennwald praised Veidt for conveying a “Faust-like conflict of soul” that gives “meaning and importance” to the main character, but complained that “amid the handsome historical settings, the narrative is muddled and the motivations are often obscure.” Today’s viewers are likely to agree that Veidt’s acting is the movie’s best asset, although the snow-covered execution scene lingers in my memory as well.