Dec 6, 2013
The Hack: Reflections on a Nazi-Era Filmmaker
Posted on Jun 18, 2010
A small dose of reality enters the film with the appearances of Christiane Kubrick and Jan Harlan. They are the niece and nephew of Harlan and, respectively, the widow and the long-time production associate of the great American director. She met Kubrick while working for him as an actress in “Paths of Glory” and, in due course, she introduced Kubrick, a Jew, to her uncle. She recalls her husband fortifying himself with a tall glass of vodka before the meeting. More important, she remembers him pondering the older man’s career in highly personal terms, wondering what he might have done had he been in Harlan’s position in Nazi Germany. Kubrick had served time in Hollywood, he had seen plenty of directors compromise their best impulses in order to sustain their careers. Above all, he could understand what a short, careless step it might have been for Harlan to do a distasteful job for Goebbels. He seems to have thought it was a little like doing something unworthy, but easily forgotten, for Louis B. Mayer. He was also thinking “there but for the grace of God. ...” According to Mrs. Kubrick, he made extensive notes for a film he considered making about Harlan, though nothing concrete came of this interest.
Putting the point simply, Stanley Kubrick knew—from observation, never from practice—what it was to be a hack. Central to that identity, I think, is the sense that no large consequences ever flow from any particular artistic enterprise. The idea was just to keep moving from one forgettable project to the next, earning a nice living, making a comfortable life. Whatever pretenses about his work that a hack may offer the public, in the deepest part of his soul he thinks no one is paying much attention to him, that he can pretty much get away with anything.
Up to a point, this proved to be the case with Veit Harlan. He continued to direct throughout the Nazi years, most notably with “Kolberg,” a historical military spectacle, that diverted resources the Nazis could well have deployed elsewhere in the waning years of the war (Goebbels found his rough cut “defeatist”). At his de-Nazification hearings Harlan presented himself as an innocent victim of Nazism, even claiming to have written and shot an exculpatory ending for “Jud Süss,” which, naturally, Goebbels rejected.
We don’t know that for certain. What common sense tells us is that a man as well connected as Harlan was had to know in 1940 something like the full meaning of Nazism. What we do know is that by 1950 Harlan was directing again; he made no less than nine movies in the following 12 years, perhaps not knowing that “Jud Süss” was then—and later—circulating widely in the Middle East, continuing to do its evil work among Muslim audiences at least as receptive to its message as the Nazis had been.
It’s well and good, if useless, for Harlan family members to decry their patriarch’s sins, for which, obviously, they bear no responsibility and thus no guilt. But in narrowly focusing on them, Moeller has blown off two opportunities—to fully tell a fascinating story and, more important, to reflect on the consequences of the hack mentality. It is more than possible that amorality—“just doing my job”—is just as loathsome as immorality—“I really like doing my job.” In any case, it remains the central conundrum of Nazism, entirely unexplored in this documentary.
Richard Schickel, whose celebrated and prolific career spans 50 years, has been the film critic for Time and Life magazines, has written more than 20 books and has produced, written and directed numerous documentaries.
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