Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg begins his reign promising to rule with loyalty and honesty, but the treasurer Süß Oppenheimer corrupts him, causing the citizens to complain and pushing Württemberg to the brink of civil war.
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I watched this movie (a bad copy, with almost inaudible sound) absolutely spellbound, because of Conrad Veidt's performance. It is also fascinating because it was made as a voice against German antisemitism (one of the first bits of dialogue in the film is along the lines of "But it's 1730! anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past!" "No, my friend, they will be against us in 1830, and in 1930, too"). However, there was a lot of trouble getting it to open in NYC because in America it was perceived as antisemitic. (I got this from John Soister's book on Veidt). It was hard to get a Jewish character on film in the 1930s who was both recognizably "Jewish" and not a stereotype. In 1940 the Germans made a film of the same book which made Veidt's elegant Jewish martyr into an elegant Jewish monster.
The plot is not new. It's similar to Musset's Lorenzaccio or Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse (Verdi's Rigoletto), I think: a sexually rapacious prince is served by a man he despises, up to the moment when the prince's lust and cruelty make the "best friend" into a mortal enemy. Frank Vosper is interesting as the prince in this movie, a man who at the beginning has a few noble impulses but who quickly degenerates into drunken cruelty and lecherousness. Benita Hume is also pretty cool as his decadent wife, who encourages his liaisons.
Veidt's role, Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, is however completely absorbing. His character is also a sensualist. He kisses everybody on the face or mouth--rabbis, his mother, his daughter--except for the woman he falls in love with. He loves luxury and enjoys beautiful clothes and presiding over a ball, and finding a new female tidbit for his prince to deflower. He seems to fantasize about knocking down the walls around the ghetto where he grew up, but his power is in fact a bit shaky; his service to the Jews seems to consist mostly in not denying he is Jewish. When he finally puts himself on the line to save an innocent Jew, it turns out to be a bad move--the prince wants vengeance on him for this concession. As Veidt's character confronts these disappointments, we see the man emerging from the courtier, and it's a wonderful transformation.
There is an odd plot twist, in which Oppenheimer learns that his biological father was a Gentile. Supposedly this makes him not Jewish. However, since Jewishness is reckoned by the mother, this makes no sense. Either his mother is a Gentile (not clear from the film) and the Jews would not consider him truly Jewish even if his father was the virtuous Jew Oppenheimer, or else she is a Jewess and our hero is thereby Jewish no matter who fathered him. The idea that he chooses to be a Jew feeds into the final scenes, and is relevant to Veidt's own life (apparently, though he was not Jewish at all, he insisted on stating that he was Jewish to the German authorities).
Although the plot is messy and a wee bit incoherent, the performances are beautiful and this is worth a look.
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