'Jew Suss' set for controversial German run

Oskar Roehler's film likely to divide the media

BERLIN -- Can the Holocaust be turned into entertainment? That's the question that will be obsessed over in Germany over the next few months as Oskar Roehler's "Jew Suss -- Rise and Fall" makes its way from its Berlin International Film Festival premiere to cinema screens across the country.

Boos and hisses accompanied the Berlin press screening of "Jew Suss" and at the gala premiere, polite applause was all the audience could muster.

"Jew Suss" is uncomfortable on many levels for German moviegoers. First its controversial subject: the making of the notorious anti-Semitic movie "Jud Suss" in 1940. The original film is still largely banned here -- you can only watch it under tightly controlled conditions and accompanied by explanatory commentary. Then there is Roehler's approach. Instead of the solemn serious tact typical of German World War II films, he opts for melodrama bordering on farce.

Because of this, "Jew Suss" will inevitably be compared to "Inglourious Basterds." Indeed, Moritz Bleibtreu's commanding performance as Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels -- by turns funny and charming then manipulative and repugnant -- is a companion piece to Christoph Waltz's Oscar-nominated performance as "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa.

But Quentin Tarantino's OTT Jewish revenge tale makes no claims on historical accuracy -- the opening line "once upon a time ... in Nazi occupied France" makes it clear "Basterds" is more fairy tale than fact -- "Jew Suss" is biopic. Roheler's film even ends with the "what happened to them" credits outlining the real-life fates of the main characters.

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The media are sifting through the film to find factual errors. The main plot is part of the historic record: Goebbels, wanting to make an "artistic Nazi propaganda film" convinces a skeptical actor, Ferdinand Marian, to play the lead role: conniving Jewish businessman Joseph Suss Oppenheimer. The film, "Jud Suss," is a huge hit. 20 million people see it in Germany alone, out of a population of 80 million. It is required viewing for Hitler's SS, and the Nazis arrange private screenings for soldiers on the Eastern Front to stoke the flames of anti-Semitism.

In his movie, Roehler mostly sticks to these facts. But there are a few embellishes. The director gives Marian, played by Tobias Moretti, a Jewish wife who is deported to a concentration camp. Marian's real wife wasn't Jewish, though her first husband was and they had a child together. Roehler said the factual distortion was used to emphasis the hypocrisy of German artists in the 1930s who went from being liberal and cosmopolitan, with Jewish friends and colleagues, to towing the Nazi party line for the sake of their careers.

The changes made by Roehler and screenwriter Klaus Richter would be considered minor if it wasn't for subject matter. In Germany, when dealing with the Nazi period, any distortion of the proven record becomes a subject for debate and condemnation. Expect a lot of both in the German broadsheets in the coming weeks.
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