Webster University history professor Warren Rosenblum hosted the first part of a two-part film series in the Winifred-Moore Auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 8. The series is sponsored in collaboration with the Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.
For three decades, the museum has educated St. Louis about the Holocaust to keep it relevant to political conversations and memorialize this tragedy. The museum explores different viewpoints on the history of Jewish persecution in Europe through public events, including lectures, survivor stories, ceremonies to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day and films. As a branch of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the museum brings in outside experts to hold events.
Rosenblum, a nationally recognized Holocaust expert who has previously lectured at the museum, organized the film series for students and general audiences. The first featured film was the 1940 Nazi propaganda film “Jud Suss.”
“Jud Suss” isn’t the type of propaganda audiences might think of when they imagine propaganda films. The film is made for entertainment and is only loosely based on true events. The story goes that a Jewish man named Joseph Suss Oppenheimer was chosen to be the court banker for Karl Alexander, a duke in what is now southern Germany in the 1700s.
At this time in Europe, banking was the only job available to many Jewish people. Due to religious restrictions in Christianity against handling money, Christian rulers forced Jews to do the dirty work for them by restricting their ability to practice most other professions. Despite this unapologetic dehumanization of Jewish people, Oppenheimer was able to get quite close to Alexander while working in his court.
Many were offended that a Jewish person could become as influential as Oppenheimer was, and he was accused of nearly every form of political and financial corruption. Oppenheimer was safe under the duke’s protection, but he was arrested after Alexander died. He was accused once again of these crimes, this time in a highly publicized trial that ended with his death sentence.
The film uses Oppenheimer’s trial and execution to argue that Jews were corrupting Germany, aligning with the Nazis’ message. Unlike blatantly antisemetic documentaries like Fritz Hippler’s “The Eternal Jew,” “Jud Suss” employs a historical narrative that relies on stereotypes prominent in Germany at the time.
“It’s not [a] heavy-handed documentary,” Rosenblum remarked in an interview. “It’s a costume drama. The acting is well done, the writing is good. It’s well-made entertainment.”
Rosenblum stated that the goal of this film series is to open discussion on how film can propagate disinformation about the past. He emphasized that audiences must be wary of disinformation in films, even ones that aren’t overt propaganda. An example he mentions is the popular film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
“The idea that a Jewish prisoner could sit there in a Nazi death camp and look out and talk to someone on the other side without an officer finding out is ridiculous,” Rosenblum said. “I understand that the movie is doing this to tell a story, but it’s still something we should talk about.”
In keeping with his goal of educating the public, Rosenblum led an open discussion after the film.
“I don’t want to talk to experts on a panel,” Rosenblum said.
The open discussion was intended to make people who had never seen the film consider the effects of disinformation in all media. Although showing “Jud Suss” without an expert to point out its manipulative tactics and inaccuracies may seem dangerous, he hopes that examining it in the right environment will facilitate vibrant conversation about disinformation.
The second film in the series is a 2008 documentary titled “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss,” which is about the writer and director of “Jud Suss,” Veit Harlan, his life and his family. It will be shown on Thursday, Sept. 15 in the Winifred-Moore Auditorium and will be followed by another open discussion.