A few days ago, in attacking the apparently hateful caricatures of Jews in Foreskin Man, the comic drawn out by anti-circumcision “inactivist” Matthew Hess, I cited the 1940 German film Jud Suss. The film’s poster, from which a bearded Jew glowers at the viewer, was obviously an ancestor, so to speak, of the comic, which features the bearded and slavering Monster Mohel.
Remembering that the film is available on YouTube, I resolved to watch it, and found the thing grimly fascinating. For any student of film history, or even of history, period, it’s worth at least a glance.
The plot? Well, you might call it Bris of a Nation. Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, a Jew, rises to prominence in the service of the debauched, tyrannical Duke of Württemberg. Oppenheimer abuses his power — to enrich himself, to win influence for his fellow Jews, and to compile a harem of Aryan beauties. When Dorothea, the film’s ingenue, refuses him, he has her husband imprisoned. To secure his release, Dorothea surrenders to Oppenheimer‘s advances, and immediately drowns herself in shame.
For the sorely tried citizens of Stüttgart, the discovery of Dorothea’s corpse is the final straw. Like D.W. Griffith’s Klansmen, they ride to the rescue, storming the ducal palace, causing the duke to drop dead of a heart attack. Arrested and tried, Oppenheimer is condemned to death — not for high treason or pandering, though the chief justices make clear they have evidence to convict him of both, but for “mingling his flesh” with that of a Christian. He dies on the gallows, pleading for mercy.
None of that should come as a surprise. Subtlety was not a Nazi virtue. What did surprise me was how, at a distance of 70 years, they seem to have paid the Jewish people a number of unwitting, backhanded compliments. In damning the Jews as diabolically clever, the film manages, along the way, to slander the Germans as angelically dense. Trussed by their fabled stoicism, all the Aryan characters mumble, unless they’re shouting. The Jews — leering, rolling their eyes, talking with their hands — are much more interesting. It’s no contest who you’d rather belly up to the bar with.
Like all the best screen villains, Oppenheimer is always engaging, and occasionally sympathetic. Played by Ferdinand Marian, he has the dark good looks and the oily charm of a Basil Rathbone or an Alan Rickman. Certainly he cuts a more virile figure than Faber, the doomed Dorothea’s husband, who floats through the film looking undernourished and wan. At the end, when he begs for his life on the scaffold, he sounds truly piteous.
This mixed effect in the film’s final scene may represent a small act of sabotage on the part of Ferdinand Marian. Though a gentile himself, Marian had been married to a Jewish woman, and had helped his second wife’s Jewish first husband — why am I sure the German language has a name for that relationship? — hide from the Nazis. When Josef Goebbels hand-picked him to play Oppenheimer, Marian begged off for a year, but fear of blacklisting made him give in. Before accepting the part, he reportedly got drunk and smashed his furniture.
You’ll note that Oppenheimer has shaven his beard, and is dressed like a typical gentile aristocrat of the 18th century. Throughout the film his appearance changes along with his social status. In the beginning, he wears a beard and traditional Jewish garb; later, as he gains the confidence of the Duke, he reinvents himself au goy, in an attempt to pass. By the end of the film, when the Germans have him in the dock, he’s also back in the beard. The message: the Jew will out, no matter how hard he may try to disguise himself. So as not to confuse audiences, the poster depicts Oppenheimer at his most distinctively Jewish.
This is a copperplate engraving of the real Oppenheimer, at he looked when on the high tide of fortune, It would make lousy propaganda material:
Here’s the Jewish Encyclopedia’s entry on the historical Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, whose execution it calls “judicial murder.” To the editors’ credit, they don’t go out of their way to gild his memory. Oppenheimer seems to have been talented, ambitious, not overly principled, a bon vivant, a dandy, and — more than likely — a bit of a player, all common enough traits in that licentious, elegant age.
Oppenheimer apparently had sense enough to recognize that, in enforcing oppressive economic policies for an unpopular ruler, he was playing a dangerous game. Before the French Revolution, subjects criticized their sovereigns only to a certain point; beyond that, it was their ministers who took the heat. A few, like the Duke of Buckingham, paid for the resentment they caused with their lives. Several times, Oppenheimer tried to retire from state service, but each time his patron succeeded in coaxing him back.
Though non-observant and the brother of two converts to Christianity, Oppenheimer never abandoned the Jewish people, nor ultimately, Judaism itself. He used his influence to secure permission for Jews to settle in parts of Württemberg that had historically barred them. Several times after his arrest, various Lutheran pastors, along with “a baptized Jew from Tubingen,” tried to convert him to Protestant Christianity. Oppenheimer refused, declaring “I will die a Jew.” Mounting the gallows, he reportedly cried “Shm’a Yisroel!” or “Hear, O Israel” — the first words to the last prayer any Jew forgets.