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Jew Süss (1934)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Jew Süss (1934)
DirectorLothar Mendes
Production CompanyGaumont-British Picture Corporation
ProducerMichael Balcon
Screenplay and dialogueA.R. Rawlinson
AdaptationDorothy Farnum
Original novelLion Feuchtwanger
PhotographyRoy Kellino, Bernard Knowles

Cast: Conrad Veidt (Joseph Oppenheimer); Benita Hume (Marie Auguste); Cedric Hardwicke (Rabbi Gabriel); Frank Vosper (Karl Alexander); Dennis Hoey (Dieterle); Paul Graetz (Landauer)

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A Jew seeks political power in order that he may use it to benefit the status of Jewry in an anti-Semitic order of society.

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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.

Anthony Clark

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Video Clips
Extract 1 (1:39)
Extract 2 (5:40)
Extract 3 (2:29)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Cutts, Graham (1885-1958)
Junge, Alfred (1886-1964)
Veidt, Conrad (1893-1943)
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation