‘I manipulate my characters, Goebbels manipulated real people’

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.

‘I manipulate my characters, Goebbels manipulated real people’
Oskar Roehler during filming in 2009. Photo: DPA

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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What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”