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Conrad Veidt - 8/23
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Remind Me

Power aka Jew Suss (1934)

Jew Süss, a British production retitled Power in the United States, carried a great deal of heavy baggage when it premiered in 1934 and carries even more baggage today. Based on a hugely popular novel of the same title, published in 1925 by the German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger, the historical costume picture tells a fictionalized version of the story of Josef Süss Oppenheimer, better known as Jew Süss, an unflattering sobriquet combining his religious identity and his childhood nickname, a German word for "sweet." Born in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1698, the real-life Oppenheimer was appointed financial adviser to Karl Alexander, the Duke of Würrtemberg, and became a prominent figure in the duke's inner circle at a time when Jews were ghettoized and anti-Semitism was an everyday fact of life. His steadily rising power, especially in the area of taxes, fees, dowries, and other money matters, caused widespread resentment and hostility among courtiers, government officials, and ordinary citizens. Many were equally unhappy at his success in enabling other Jews to live in Würrtemberg's capital, Stuttgart, despite laws forbidding such arrangements. His opulent lifestyle didn't earn him much goodwill either.

When the duke suddenly died in 1737, Oppenheimer and the other Jews in Stuttgart were arrested. Accused of aiding the duke in various schemes and conspiracies, Oppenheimer was put on trial and sentenced to death; since the judges found no evidence that he had broken any laws, he was convicted on the basis of an old statute making it illegal for Jews to have sexual relations with Gentile women. Authorities tried to make Oppenheimer convert to Christianity before being hanged, but he is said to have responded, "I will die as a Jew; I am suffering violence and injustice." His execution in 1738 was staged as a ghastly public spectacle. He was placed in a cage, hauled to the top of a gallows thirty-five feet high, strangled with a rope, and left on display there for six long years.

Oppenheimer was seen by some as a dangerous traitor, by others as a faithful Jewish martyr, and over the years his story has been manipulated to serve purposes just as different. Of the two major film versions - one British, one German - the British production is certainly the less offensive, although it's quite confused in its handling of the protagonist's Jewish roots. Jew Süss is played with steely precision by Conrad Veidt, a prolific actor best known as the somnambulist Cesare in Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and as Heinrich Strasser, the Nazi major, in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942). Süss navigates Stuttgart politics with such smooth-talking aplomb that his social climbing and power grabbing seem like natural outgrowths of his personality, and his decline and fall take on extra poignancy when he refuses to disavow his Jewish heritage - a somewhat ironic twist, since despite the help he gives other Jews during his time in power, he never shows any dedication to the Jewish faith itself.

The movie's strangest element arrives fairly late in the story, when Süss pays a visit to his dear old mother and learns for the first time that he was born out of wedlock and his biological father was a Gentile, which means (according to the film's logic) that Jew Süss isn't a Jew at all. This comes as quite a surprise, but it has little effect on the rest of the plot, and since Jewish identity is passed along through mothers, not fathers, it has no effect at all on Jew Süss, who always was a Jew and remains one now, whatever the movie's writers may have thought. This development makes him more sympathetic when he eventually meets his fate, however: he asserts his dignity as a Jew by choice rather than necessity, and he defiantly cries a Jewish prayer when he's hoisted to his doom on the scaffold. His execution is powerfully shot, with thickly falling snow wrapping the awful occasion in paradoxical beauty.

A second movie version of Oppenheimer's story, based on an 1827 novella by Wilhelm Hauff, is more famous today than the British production. Also titled Jew Süss, it was directed in 1940 by German filmmaker Veit Harlan and distributed with enormous fanfare by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler's plan to exterminate European Jewry was in the active planning stage. In this film the protagonist, played with great panache by Ferdinand Marian, is portrayed as a seductive scoundrel who subverts the political process, undermines law and order, and stops at nothing to satisfy his base appetites, whether it's ravishing a Christian girl or putting her betrothed into the torture chamber. Like the British film, the German one ends with the supposedly uplifting sight of Süss's execution, but here it's followed by the reading of a declaration warning present and future generations about the perils that await if they allow Jews into their midst. This version of Jew Süss is a naked exercise in anti-Semitic rabblerousing, building on the widely disseminated Nazi message that Jews are essentially two-legged vermin with a fiendish talent for disguising themselves as normal human beings - an insidious notion purveyed again in 1940 by Fritz Hippler's pseudo-documentary The Eternal Jew, one of the most scurrilous works in motion-picture history. Harlan's production of Jew Süss was a big hit, though, viewed by some twenty million Germans in the early 1940s, owing to Goebbels's promotional blitz and Harlan's directorial skills. Today it's hard to watch the earlier British film without thinking of the later German one.

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.

Director: Lothar Mendes
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: A.R. Rawlinson; adaptation by Dorothy Farnum; from the novel by Lion Feuchtwanger
Cinematographer: Roy Kellino
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
With: Conrad Veidt (Josef Süss Oppenheimer), Benita Hume (Marie Auguste), Frank Vosper (Karl Alexander), Gerald du Maurier (Weissensee), Cedric Hardwicke (Rabbi Gabriel), Paul Graetz (Landauer), Pamela Ostrer (Naomi), Joan Maude (Magdalen Sibylle), Percy Parsons (Pflug), James Raglan (Lord Suffolk), Sam Livesey (Harprecht), Dennis Hoey (Dieterle), Campbell Gullan (Prince of Thurn & Taxis), Eva Moore (Jantje), Hay Plumb (Pfaeffle).
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