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‘I manipulate my characters, Goebbels manipulated real people'

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‘I manipulate my characters, Goebbels manipulated real people'
Oskar Roehler during filming in 2009. Photo: DPA
12:28 CET+01:00
Jud Süß - Film ohne Gewissen was panned at this year's Berlinale for its portrayal of a notorious Nazi propaganda film. Its director Oskar Roehler spoke with Vera von Kreutzbruck about the controversy surrounding the movie.

Carrying the English title "Jew Suss - Rise and Fall," the picture tells the true story of a little-known actor who is offered the lead role in the biggest anti-Semitic smear film commissioned by Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

The 1940 film was based on the story of Joseph Oppenheimer, who was a Jewish financial advisor to the Duke of Württemberg in the 18th century. He introduced exorbitant taxes and tolls and was finally hanged in 1738 for high treason.

During the Third Reich, the story was retold as a parable about the alleged Jewish threat in 1930s Europe using grotesque anti-Semitic stereotypes. It became a runaway success in Fascist Europe, seen by some 20 million people.

The new picture had been one of the most eagerly awaited at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, but there was widespread booing during a press preview last week and Roehler has been criticised for taking artistic liberties with historical events.

What attracted you to Jud Süß to make you want to shoot a film about it?

It interested me because it is about our (German) film industry. I know this industry because I have been a victim of it for the last 20 years. Plus, the story could be applied to present times. It's about an actor who wants to become famous or just work. Today actors do the same thing, they work where they can. Some even work in dirty afternoon soap operas. But nobody would think that these kinds of people would play a huge part in a Nazi movie.

Do you see Goebbels as a metaphor for the whole film industry?

I see him as the devil. They shot the movie just when the war was starting. The film shows the roots of German consciousness, ideas that many people agreed with at that time. This is who we are: we are clean, we do not mix our blood, we work with our hands for our money and Jews do it differently, they just take it. This changed completely after the war, but before Germany was a different country.

Do you think the actor Ferdinand Marian (played in the new film by Tobias Moretti) was naive in thinking he could subvert the propaganda through his acting?

It was very naive of him or he was lying to himself to feel better. But I would say it's the latter because he could not avoid the film in the end. He had four possibilities: playing the role, killing himself, going abroad or getting killed. I tried to show somebody who lost his morality because of the oppression of the state.

Why did you do make such a caricature of Goebbels?

Because he was a caricature in a way. How can you play him? You cannot play him as a distinguished person. He was a mad character. He was a politician in an extreme, perfect form but in a bad way. That made him so dangerous.

Is it true that you want to make a film about him?

It's a seductive idea. I'm thinking about it but maybe I won't do it. If I could do it in the style of say “Scarface,” maybe. Perhaps Germans should not be the ones to make such a film, instead leaving it to the British or Americans.

One of the main criticisms about the film is that it takes liberties with historical facts.

Yes, sure. You have a different view because you are not German. Here people deal with it day and night and feel wounded. Everybody has their own opinion. I do not think I did something wrong with the movie.

Do you feel you're manipulating your audience as a director similar to how Goebbels did with his propaganda?

I manipulate the emotions of my characters, Goebbels manipulated real people. There is a slight difference. I don't want to influence people in the wrong way. I want to enlighten them. Maybe I didn't take enough of an educational approach in this movie.

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