Veit Harlan, one of top German directors during WWII, specialized in large-scale historicals with big patriotic themes. His final wartime spectacular, KOLBERG/’45, a Napoleonic-era drama of German sacrifice, was even given precedent over the military during production, with thousands of Nazi soldiers brought in from the front to fill in the ranks for Harlan’s film. (Clips seen here, in restored AGFA-Color, look damn impressive, in an impersonal way.) But this film, along with Harlan’s output before, during & after the war, is rarely shown because of his most (in)famous film, JUD SÜß/’40, a prime example of Nazi cinema anti-Semitism. (The story had actually been filmed in England a few years previously, with Conrad Veidt in a sympathetic portrayal.) Certainly, the clips shown in this documentary look appalling, but who knows how the film would play in hindsight. As it is, Felix Moeller’s documentary is as frustrating as it is fascinating. Harlan, married three times, has a lot of kids & grandkids with contradictory ideas on the man, many coming up with what you might call the Alec Guinness defense, in that Harlan, like Guinness in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57, may have been forced to make these films (well, that film), but couldn’t help but make a good job of it. The film goes over this idea in laborious detail, but it winds up holding your attention, often thanks to the film clips. And then, one of Harlan’s daughters turns out to be Stanley Kubrick’s widow! She tells us about the film Kubrick contemplated making about what it must have been like to work under the Third Reich.* But what we really need to see are the films. How else to understand the man, his era and his choices?
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s always a strong emphasis on the patriotic & propagandistic films made in German during the Nazi-era, but sheer escapism was what the public clamored for. Why not a documentary on these films? Could anything be more naturally Brechtian, more clear on the ‘banality of evil,’ then detailing a hard day carrying out crimes against humanity before having a relaxing evening at the Bijou laughing at a silly/romantic operetta? Maybe that was the film idea Kubrick had in mind?