Philosophy of Film – Nonexplicit Moral Messages

Today (The 13th of July 2017) I graduated from the University of York with a 2:1 Bachelors degree in Philosophy. In celebration of that I have decided, since Twitter seemed receptive of it, to upload one of the essays I handed in during my time there. What follows is a 4000ish word essay that contrasts the ways Jud Süß (Some pretty vile Nazi propaganda commissioned by Goebbels during the peak of the Nazi film industry) and Fail Safe (A Very Concerned thriller made in Cold War Era US) indulge in certain kinds of rhetoric. Interesting! I hope. At any rate I wouldn’t recommend using this academically, though the sources may be of some interest to you, and I do not mind adding an addendum if I, in my BA philosophy ways have missed something of importance. I have loved my degree, but I don’t necessarily expect it to have not overlooked any potential crap when it comes to weighty subjects like Nazis. Fuck Nazis. Enjoy. 

PS: Sorry the formatting is iffy. Juggling from openoffice to WordPress is a pain =S

How Jud Süß and Fail Safe express their moral messages outside of explicit statement

Fiction, and in the case of this essay fictional film, can often contain moral messages. Productions of Romeo and Juliet tell of the tragedies that can arise from feuds. Star Wars preaches the importance of love and acceptance over hate and vengeance. These are both explicit statements that films can, and do, state. However, alongside the explicitly stated moral statements exist the myriads of other statements within the film that are nonexplicit.

In this essay I will explore the ways in which Jud Süß (Harlan, 1940) and Fail Safe (Lumet, 1964) express their moral messages outside of what is explicitly stated within the film. First I will focus on Jud Süß exploring the ways in which it preaches a particular brand of anti-Semitic, with particular detail on how it dehumanises Jewish people as being hyper-rational cold hearted monsters. Then I shall explore how Fail Safe explores similar rhetoric for an antithetical goal.

However, before all this, I first need to give some disclaimers. Firstly, this essay is going to presume that film does have particular and differing moral value. We can and genuinely do make moral judgements on film, and art in general (Carrol, 1998, pg.126). To explore how we do so must be the subject of another essay; we cannot talk about how films have moral messages without presuming they genuinely do. Secondly, I will be borrowing language and tools from both Carrol’s clarificationism, and Shrage’s contextual feminist approach. These lenses allow and explore the intersection between audience and the text of the film1. Use of these requires more justification than my first presumption. However, I believe that the contexts within which I use these tools will also serve as justification for why I am using them.

  1. Jud Süß

Jud Süß is a film produced in Nazi Germany commissioned by it’s Minister of Propaganda. It is widely considered to be the most infamous and vicious pieces of film to ever be produced ( Schulte-Sass, 1988, pg. 22). It retells the historic tale of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer Court Jew2 of Duke Karl Alexander of Wüttermburg. More specifically it is widely considered to be an anti-semitic reclamation of the story after the British film Jew Süss (1934) presented Jews in a sympathetic fashion (BBC, 2010).

Jud Süß explicitly states many things about, its fictional, Oppenheimer. It states he is a wanderer with no homeland. It portrays him as greedy and self interested. Acting solely for his own sake, and the sake of Jewish people in general. This essay isn’t about these explicit statements, however I think it is important to state that they exist and are prominent. What is, perhaps, more insidious about Jud Süß is what it depicts outside of it’s explicit text. The ideas about Jewish people that it has predicated itself on, and the ideas it presents about them.

Only two actors within Jud Süß portray Jewish people. Ferdinand Marian plays Oppenheimer himself, and every other Jewish character is played by Werner Krauss (Schulte-Sasse, 1988, pg. 40). No other set of characters is played by the same person. This is a conscious decision that works to paint Jewish people as being nonhuman. Having more in common with robots or base animals, they are all the same not sharing the large differences that the rest of the characters have. There are two main scenes I feel build upon and utilize this. The first I will talk about is the scene that shows the Jewish people being allowed into Stuttgart. The second is a discussion between two non-Jewish characters discussing how logical Jewish people are.

About a third of the way through the movie, Oppenheimer convinces the Duke to remove the restriction that prevents Jewish people from entering Stuttgart. Thus, immediately after the hanging of a Blacksmith who lashed out at Oppenheimer for cutting his house in half (this sets up the ironic downfall of Oppenheimer at the end of the movie), we have a scene where Jewish people, on mass, enter Stuggart. The scene opens with a shot of the main road into Stuttgart empty, yet surrounded on both sides by the current residents of the city. Foreboding music accompanies the scene as quickly the road fills up with, at first, the horses and carriages of the Jewish people. Even from the very start of this scene the few Jewish people accompanying the horses are Othered from the non-Jewish residents by having drastically different clothing, for instance all the non-Jewish residents have white trims on their hats. The Jewish people both lack a trim on their hats and have completely different kinds of hats to begin with. As the scene progresses the tense music begins to clash with Jewish chanting as a long line of darkly clothed Jewish people follow their horses. Their clothing makes it hard to distinguish where one of them ends and the other begins, and the scene ends before the end of the queue is in sight.

There are several ways this scene in particular presents its moral message, most of which are nonexplicit. Firstly, by having the streets next to the road be full of the Christian residents of the city, the entering Jewish community is easily shown to be distinct and different from the previous residents. Combining this with the foreboding musical score frames the Jewish community as being bad for the city in general. Their presence actively corrupts the Good of Stuttgart, the classes of people that we are to take as being the good are shown through the ensemble of men actively opposing Oppenheimer within the rest of the film.

That the Jewish people’s dark clothes blend them into one and other, and the queue itself having no end is presented as menacing imagery. Rather than being people with their own individual goals and desires, the Jewish people are presented as an unending swarm invading Stuttgart (Schulte-Sasse, 1988, pg.41). The scene directly after this even goes as far to state explicitly “the Jews are like locusts”, however even without that statement the emotional impact was already there. The moral value of Jewish people as being parasitic, invading, vermin is nonexplicitly there even if the explicit admittance of that imagery is later reaffirmed.

Furthermore, whilst this crowd of Jewish people is one of the few times that a non-Oppenheimer Jewish person is depicted by an actor that isn’t Krauss we do not get a clear glimpse of the majority of them. Most of the scene is focussed on the Arch in such a fashion that we can only see the backs of their heads. The clearest shot we get of anyone in the crowd is of a chanting bearded man, leading his horse into the city. A perfect stereotype of the Nazi fear of Jewish people invading their cities3. Furthermore noone depicted in this crowd is ever seen again as a talking or plot relevant character. Those roles are all fulfilled by Krauss.

The second scene I wish to talk about takes place earlier in the film, shortly after Oppenheimer has been granted control of the roads and has begun taxing those who wish to use them. This resulting in a higher price for necessities such as vegetables and meat is how this scene begins within the Sturm household, one of the households that the ‘heroes’ of the film come from. Faber criticises Dorothea for letting Oppenheimer into the city, and Dorothea’s father criticises the Duke4 for accepting Oppenheimer’s plans in exchange for money that he himself had previously denied him, as a councilman. Then Faber and Councilman Sturm discuss the nature of Jewish people.

The Jews aren’t wise. They’re just clever”

This statement by Councilman Sturm is the ultimate conclusion of this conversation. In order to defeat Oppenheimer and his preying on the Duke’s weaknesses, they will have to be much wiser than the clever Jew. Within the context of the scene and the one preceding it, what Sturm means by clever is that of rationality or mathematics. He believes that Jewish people genuinely are good at manipulating maths, and thus money. This is an important part of why this piece of Nazi propaganda was purposefully set 200 years in the past. As Schulte-Sasse points out, by taking part at the starting steps of modern capitalism, modern capitalism is framed as being built upon and for the benefit of Jewish people (Schulte-Sasse, 1988, pg. 35).

This links back to a previous scene where Dorothea finds Oppenheimer, in disguise, on the road to Stuttgart after a carriage accident. Whilst she unknowingly brings him into the city he reveals to her that he has travelled the world, visiting many great cities. This on its own is almost presented as an admirable and positive trait. Yet she asks Oppenheimer where does he call home, and he responds with ‘the world’. During the early twentieth century travellers had a home to centre themselves in. This prevented them from losing sight of their self, or perhaps their national identity (Schulte-Sasse, 1988, pg 41). This distinction pushes Oppenheimer further away from the Nationalism that the film holds as Right.

Similarly to the parasitic or vermin imagery I have already mentioned, in providing emphasis on the cold hearted rationality of Jewish people Jud Süß presents them in a less than human manner. We only ever see their skills in economics as a tool for manipulating others into giving them what they want. There is also never a moment where the goals of Oppenheimer (and his community) ever helped the Stuttgart community as a whole. Always harming it.

  1. Fail Safe

Interestingly enough, the Cold War film Fail Safe (1964) shares several rhetorical elements with Jud Süß. However, where Jud Süß uses these elements to demean Jewish people, Fail Safe presents them as a prominent viewpoint whilst also framing that viewpoint as being wrong.

Fail Safe depicts a fictional account of the Cold War era United States military trying to rectify a faulty signal given to a squadron of bombers, armed with nuclear warheads, who are now on course to nuke Moscow. The majority of the film takes place within the various military rooms and emergency bunkers of the US military and head of state. A few scenes take place within the main US bomber that received the signal and the ending sequence itself uses shots of New York, however no scene within the film takes place in Russia. We never actually see a Russian in this film, we only overhear their talks through the multitude of phone calls that make up the bulk of the film.

The first conversation I would like to focus on, with reference to Jud Süß, involves an emergency room where a group of advisors at the Pentagon are discussing what they should advise the President to do about the bombers heading to Moscow. Specifically, this discussion occurs shortly after the President decided, due to their advice, that a squadron of fighters should be sent to shoot-down the bombers. However, the only squadron in range to do so did not have the fuel needed to do that and return. Whilst they are waiting to see if these fighters will succeed or not, the US military is concerned over what the Russian military’s response is to these bombers, that they can certainly see on their radar, approaching their border.

The scene in question opens up with one officer reading off, and explaining, what the current Russian military’s response is. How they have a ‘normal’ number of bombers in the air, similar to what the US has, but that they also have a large number of fighters in the air too, ‘approximately half their total fighter strength’. The advisors are trying to figure out what this means exactly. Does Russia know that the objects approaching them are bombers? Do they think this is an actual attack? Or do they think it’s a false alarm like they themselves had during the first third of the film? Thus the focus of this scene is the various advisors at the Pentagon each trying to think like the Russian military.

Professor Groeteschele, a social scientist, upon hearing that the Russian military probably know that these are infact US bombers heading towards them, expresses that upon the bombers crossing the Russian border that they will “immediately surrender”. When questioned on why he believes this Groeteschele describes Soviet Russia as being “Marxist fanatics”, that they want world domination and believe they will ultimately get it so long as the Soviet Union remains intact. A war would destroy the Soviet Union, thus they would surrender. However, the reason he believes they would do such a thing rather than defend themselves or strike back is that these Marxist fanatics do not reason like he, and the rest of the US does. They are not motivated by “rage or pity like normal humans. They are calculating machines.”.

This framing of Russians as more like machines than humans is similar to the way Jud Süß framed Jewish people as being cold-hearted hyper rational beings. These viewpoints deny common human traits, which results in Jewish people, or Russians as being alien beings. They are not like ‘us’. They are instead unnatural beings (Schulte-Sasse, 1988, pg. 38). This emotional appeal could easily be, like it is in Jud Süß, a way to encourage hate and distrust in Russians, but Fail Safe uses this stance differently. Firstly, Groeteschele is speaking in a scene that proceeds immediately after ‘the humanity of machines’ has been brought up. How they can make mistakes, wear down, and become “tired”. That machine reasoning and human reasoning have their similarities. That the ‘problem’ with machines is that they are complicated, work quickly and it is not always obvious when they have made a mistake. These are very much traits we could apply to humans or people. Secondly, whilst the position of Groeteschele is definitely presented as a prominent viewpoint of people during the Cold War era it is certainly not presented as actually being a viewpoint that has any basis in reality, or more accurately within the fiction of Fail Safe.

This is most easily shown through the conversations between the US President and the Soviet Chairman. The President’s interpreter, Bucky, is asked not only to repeat what the Chairman says, but also what the inflections in his voice say about his emotional state, that every bit of information about the Chairman he can get the better. Bucky delivers on this, occasionally telling the President how he thinks the Chariman is feeling, or about background noise he overhears. Where Jud Süß portrayed Oppenheimer as being ruthless and cold, outside of his desperate pleas to live in the epilogue, the same can’t be said of the Chairman.

From his very first conversation there’s an emphasis on him being worried rather than calculating. We get this sense of worry from the shift from initially ranting at the President over the armed craft flying towards Russia as being too much and that he’s been warned time and time again over this, to his immediate “Very well then” as the President emphasises, repeatedly speaking over the Chairman, that this is a mistake. If Fail Safe wanted to make Russians appear cold-hearted and calculated it wouldn’t have made this, and all the other conversations the Chairman and President have be so agreeable. Neither of them are happy to be in this situation, and whilst their political positions force them down avenues they would rather not be in, such as the sacrifice of New York that the President is forced to offer should his bomber destroy Moscow, they both express constant acknowledgement and apology for having to do such a thing to appease their Governments. Furthermore in this same first conversation the Chairman offers his condolences to the President over the fighters running out of fuel and falling into the sea “it is a hard thing to order men to their death, is it not”. The way this is phrased goes beyond merely platitudes, it implies that the Chairman has had to the same at some point and that it has weighed on him too. Again, not the kind of sympathy or emotional response you would expect from a cold-hearted, hyper-rational machine.

Another way Fail Safe subverts the idea that Soviet Russians are hyper-rational machines is in how ‘symmetrical’ the US and Russians military personnel are behaving in this high stress environment.

Later in the film, as the bombers have entered Russian territory and are close to reaching Moscow, the US and Russian militaries have begun working together, sharing radars and answering each others questions on what would otherwise be classified information. As part of this open communications have been established between a translator of the Russian’s military and General Bogan of the US’ military. These communications are tense, with multiple instances of US soldiers being unable to answer, or struggling to answer, these questions about their military secrets to people they had previously considered to be their mortal enemies. At one point, Colonel Cascio attacks General Bogan, beating him over the head before claiming that Bogan was a traitor and that the President asked him to do it. Multiple close-ups of Cascio combine with POV shots of the phone, which he ends up using to club Bogan, conveying a sense of desperation and tension. Before a series of quick cuts depict the clubbing itself. When Cascio is giving his speech afterwards these closeups continue. His confusion and trauma accentuated by the crackle of static in the background.

Cascio is depicted as desperate and confused. However, it is the Russian translator’s response that I find to be of utmost importance in this scene. Rather than criticizing or speaking badly of Bogan not being able to keep his men under control, or using this as leverage for his country, the translator sympathises with him. Telling him that yes he overheard what happened, but that they had also been struggling with the same problems. Again, if Fail Safe wanted to depict Soviet Russia as legitimately being the inhuman Other that Jud Süß did with Jewish people, it would not have had the Russian translator respond empathetically nor emotionally like he did.

  1. Summary

In summary: Jud Süß frames Jewish people as being inhuman, hyper-rational beings that parasitize the Good German people. It does this by never depicting Jewish people as having empathetic responses to other people’s suffering. Through limiting any distinction between different Jewish people. Through them having the same actor or same limited defining traits unlike the German residents of Stuttgart. And by using imagery often reserved for vermin. Their skills with money are also only used to lie or manipulate others into helping them increase their own monetary power, as opposed to community benefit or any emotional goal. This all conveys the Otherness of Jewish people without needing explicit mention, though explicit mention is also given to further reinforce these core messages.

Fail Safe on the other-hand, portrays these kinds of Nationalistic and reductive viewpoints as being falsely placed. It has characters express these and other viewpoints, painting Soviet Russia as being inhabited by unemotional machine-like Marxist fanatics. Then chooses to depict all it’s Russian characters as being sympathetic, empathetic and more than willing to work in the interests of both countries. Where they could have been depicted as using the US’s accidental ‘Go’ command to start a war or as leverage in a political move against them. This distinction is depicted despite us, the audience, never actually seeing a Russian in the film, only overhearing their discussions as background noise or through translators. Furthermore there is some effort to apply human traits to machines, further demeaning the ‘machine-like’ Soviet depiction as effective Othering. Unlike Jud Süß, Fail Safe does not make explicit statement about any of these traits it portrays Russians as having. Instead it relies firmly on the arguments various characters bring as being shown wrong or right by the content of the film itself.

This helps Fail Safe let the audience use their prior understandings of sympathy, empathy, and of people, to realise that Russians could be as human as the US in such a fashion that it isn’t unintelligable to people who do not start the film believing such a thing. This approach simply uses people’s prior beliefs on what persons are like and then brings to attention that Russians count under these beliefs5. Jud Süß does the inverse. It portrays Jewish people as having traits that anti-Semitic accounts already use in order to rationalise anti-Semitism. This reinforces those moral messages rather than tearing them down.

  1. Conclusion

Fail Safe and Jud Süß are drastically different films, from drastically different eras. However, the Othering rhetoric both use to describe certain classes of people are similar though used in different ways.

Fail Safe explicitly states the inhumanity of Soviet Russians whilst then making sure to depict the Russian military as humanly as the US military. This allows its audience to apply their understanding of humans to realise that Soviet Russia isn’t simply a bunch of inhuman Marxist fanatics.

Jud Süß instead reinforces anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes by never depicting any Jewish people in a sympathetic fashion and instead emphasising their ‘Otherness’. When Jud Süß does give explicit statement the many nonexplicit depictions before, and indeed after, such a statement simply reinforce that viewpoint. This means that ideas such as “Jewish people prey on society” or that “Jewish people only act in their own monetary interests” are not only unchallenged within Jud Süß but are actively reinforced by it. This may limit its ability to convince someone of these ideas unless they already had some belief of them. Though it does allow some normalisation and acceptance of those values amongst like-minded people.

V. Endnotes:

1The ‘text’ of the film isn’t referring to the visual depiction of words within a film, but is instead referring to the overall structure and content of the film. Anything that is explicit within a film can be considered it’s text. Whilst thematic analysis, or subtextual readings would not be. When I refer to the ‘text’ in this essay I am talking about what the films themselves depict.

2Court Jews fulfilled roles in Austrian and German courts during the 17th and 18th Century that Christians were unable to. By fulfilling these roles they gained privileges otherwise reserved for traditional Christians of the period. However, this did not exclude them from anti-semitic oppression. (See The Jewish Encyclopedia 1906)

3There is some contention over whether Jud Süß actually functioned effectively as propaganda, turning people against Jewish people, or whether it simply reinforced the views of those who were already anti-semitic (See Greg Currie lecture ‘Film, Knowledge, and error). Whatever the case, I do not believe this changes the moral content of the film, as the message – that Jewish people invade cities and destroy them – is there regardless of whether it merely reinforces prior beliefs, ala Clarificationism, or if it actually convinced people sympathetic with Jewish people that Jewish people were bad for Germany all along.
4The Duke himself in Jud Sus is one of the few non-Jewish men in the film who isn’t framed heroically. His monetary greed, sexual debauchery and self-centred view of the community are all traits that Oppenheimer takes advantage of.
5Carrol writes, on page 148 of Art, narrative and moral understanding, that this reorganising of information, rather than stating, is how moral messages in film inform us rather than being un-intelligable unless they are already known (and thus being trivial).



Harlan, Veit, (1940), Jud Süß, Terrafilm

Lumet, Sidney, (1964), Fail Safe, Columbia Pictures

Papers, Essays, and other texts

Carrol, Noël, (1998), Art, narrative and moral understanding, Aesthetics and ethics: essays at the intersection pg. 126-160

Shrage, Laurie, (1990), Feminist Film Aesthetics: A Contextual Approach, Hypatia, Vol. 5 No. 2 Feminism and Aesthetics (Summer, 1990) pg. 137-148

Schulte-Sasse, Linda, (1988), The Jew as Other under National Socialism: Veit Harlan’s Jud Süß, The German Quarterly, vol. 61, No. 1, (Winter, 1988), pg. 22-49 (2010), Controversial Nazi Film Released in Germany, BBC Entertainment and Arts, September 23rd 2010


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