Hidden in Plain Sight: Jews and Jewishness in British Film, Television, and Popular Culture is the first collection of its kind on this subject. The volume brings together a range of original essays that address different aspects of the role and presence of Jews and Jewishness in British film and television from the interwar period to the present. It constructs a historical overview of the Jewish contribution to British film and television, which has not always been sufficiently acknowledged. Each chapter presents a case study reflective of the specific Jewish experience as well as its particularly British context, with cultural representations of how Jews responded to events from the 1930s and '40s, including World War II, the Holocaust, and a legacy of antisemitism, through to the new millennium.
About the Author
NATHAN ABRAMS is a professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales.
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Hidden in Plain Sight
Jews and Jewishness in British Film, Television, and Popular Culture
By Nathan Abrams
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
"Awaiting, with Some Anxiety"
The Jewish Response to Jew Süss (1934) in 1930s Britain
On a balmy June evening during the summer of 1938, Joe Louis — the world heavyweight boxing champion — stepped into the ring in the middle of a crammed Yankee Stadium and pummeled his archenemy, the German hero Max Schmeling, into submission in little more than two minutes. Famously, many of Louis's most devoted fans were Jewish, and listening on radios across the globe, they rejoiced. Schmeling had been feted by the Nazi Party, while the African American Louis was promoted as democracy's representative. With the clash-of-ideologies backstory and the explosive nature of the bout, distributors had little trouble selling the international rights to the film of the fight, and it was on British screens by early July. One of the most enthusiastic reviews was published in the Jewish Chronicle. As well as describing the piece as a "thrilling film," the politics of the event were made clearly evident. With Louis seen hammering his opponent "with blows that must agonise any Schmeling worshiping Nazi," readers were assured that the film "will be banned in Germany."
While the Louis–Schmeling fight may be a major event in boxing history, the thirteen-minute film of the action has become — at best — a footnote in film history. For contemporary British Jewish visitors to the cinema, however, this footage offered something all too rare on British screens: an image of Nazism as a force that could be defeated. From 1933 to 1939, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) worked hard to ensure amicable relations with foreign nations. As such, in Britain, the most culturally significant mass communications medium of the era — the cinema — would remain remarkably free of denunciations of Hitler's regime right up to the outbreak of war. In a world in which cinematic crumbs such as the film of the Louis–Schmeling fight were seized upon for their anti-Nazi content, it thus seems remarkable that only a few years earlier what was reported as the most expensive film in British production history offered something of a critique of Nazi antisemitism.
In October 1934, the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation released Jew Süss, a historical tragedy starring Conrad Veidt as the eighteenth-century Stuttgart "court Jew" Joseph Süß Oppenheimer. As Jeffrey Richards asserts, during the early 1930s Gaumont-British had been determined to produce a film denouncing antisemitism. Indeed, BBFC scenario reports record the company submitting two synopses overtly critical of political antisemitism for assessment by the censor in mid-1933. A German Tragedy narrated the ostracism of a brilliant Jewish doctor from German society following the imposition of Nazi legislation, while City without Jews explored the devastating cultural and economic consequences that befall a fictional contemporary Austria when the country's Jews face banishment. Both synopses were rejected by the BBFC as political propaganda, with fears raised that A German Tragedy "might easily provoke a disturbance" given the strength of public feeling in regard to recent events in Germany.
Refusing to drop its commitment to putting out a feature dealing with the persecution of Jews, Gaumont-British submitted the scenario for Jew Süss to the BBFC in November 1933. Based on Lion Feuchtwanger's best-selling 1925 novel Jud Süß and having had a successful run in London as a 1929 stage production, it seems likely that its status as legitimate culture — together with its historical setting — helped protect the script from the censor's knife. Mainly concerned with toning down assorted expressions of sexual desire deemed too direct, the BBFC recommended only minimal amendments, and the film went into production in early 1934 with the full financial weight of the company behind it. When completed, Jew Süss boasted a first-rate cast, finely detailed sets, and lavish costumes. With such production values, the film was guaranteed to attract significant critical attention, and every section of the British press — national, trade, local — devoted column space to reviews or photographic stills of notable scenes. Although notices were not uniformly gushing, many were extremely positive. Writing in the Evening Standard, a young John Betjeman declared it "undoubtedly the best film of the week" and praised Veidt's "outstanding performance." Some of the most complimentary comments came in the Jewish press. For the Jewish Times the piece was "one of the grandest films ever to be created," while the Jewish Chronicle labeled it "A Stupendous Production."
For British Jews living during the interwar period, the significance of the exhibition of Jew Süss should not be underestimated. At that moment, Jewish communal concerns pertaining to the Nazi persecution of Jews and the turn to antisemitism by Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists might achieve sympathetic recognition on the national stage as a generalized non-Jewish public gained a deeper understanding of the victimization of Jews. Complicating any Jewish reception of the film, though, was the widely articulated contemporary stereotype that cinema was a Jewish monopoly. If Jew Süss were read as a tendentious promotion of particularist interests, it would fail the most elementary test of individualistic liberalism: universal relevance. A Jewish preoccupation with the non-Jewish majority's view of the film should thus be understood as integral to any assessment of its Jewish reception. Such concerns were clearly apparent in the output of the Jewish press, and unease with the film's potential status as propaganda was a notable feature of the discourse assessing it. To be sensitized to this minority orientation to majority opinion not only offers an understanding of the discursive context in which the consumption of Jew Süss took place but also provides an insight into what can be referred to as a British Jewish interwar "structure of feeling."
A Rare Moment of Criticism
As in Feuchtwanger's novel, the movie Jew Süss portrays the ascendancy, and brutal fall, of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer in the Württemberg court of Duke Karl Alexander. The story begins with Süss confessing his hunger for power to his loyal friend Landauer, explaining his desire to secure respect not just for himself but for all Jews. The opportunity for advancement soon presents itself when Süss ingratiates himself with Alexander through a gambling loan, and he quickly becomes incorporated into the duke's household. Proving himself an indispensable servant, Süss rises to the point where he is able to secure the release of a poor ghetto Jew falsely accused of ritual murder. However, this charmed existence is not fated to last, and following the death of his daughter Naomi — who falls from a high roof while attempting to escape the advances of the lascivious duke — Süss plots the duke's ruin. Although successful in his plan to sabotage the duke's attempts to do away with the Diet and grasp absolute rule, Süss becomes scapegoated during the inquiry into the affair and dies a tragic hero, reciting the Shema on the execution scaffold.
With eighteenth-century Württemberg as the film's setting, it is unsurprising that no direct reference to Hitler is made throughout. An absence of references to Nazism notwithstanding, the piece is described by Rachael Low as "loaded with obscure significance," and textual allusion to the contemporary position of German Jews is apparent at several moments, albeit delivered at an oblique angle. During the film's opening, a title card reads, "It was a time of universal intolerance and the Jews above all suffered oppression and boycott." As Susan Tegel has noted, the boycott was very much a tactic of Nazi antisemitism rather than earlier varieties, and the embargo of Jewish shops in Germany had received significant attention in the British news media in the spring of 1933. Further title cards refer to the unfinished nature of Süss's efforts in breaking down the ghetto walls, stating "his story lives." Perhaps most pointed is a sequence of dialogue between Süss and Landauer. Dismissing his friend's report of anti-Jewish persecution, Süss asserts, "Ach! Old fables ... we are now in 1730!" To which Landauer responds, "They can do it in 1730, they can do it in 1830, they can do it in 1930!"
To what extent the import of such references was readily decoded, or proved too subtle for contemporary viewers, is now impossible to judge. What is clear is that both the mainstream and British Jewish press positioned the film as inevitably located within the context of the mounting crisis in Germany. Although mention of Nazism was provided in only a minority of reviews in mainstream British news sources, its relevance to Jew Süss was unambiguously stated. The Observer referred to the "present political situation in Germany" in its review, while the Spectator claimed, "But for Hitlerism, this film would perhaps, never have been made." Interestingly, parallels with contemporary events were offered somewhat guardedly in appraisals of Jew Süss in the Jewish press. The Jewish Times gave some details about the persecution suffered by Feuchtwanger in Germany, while the Jewish Chronicle made reference to the film's "valuable lessons." Jew Süss, it was claimed, "lays bare certain foundations of modern European popular opinion on which have been built the Jew hatred that we know today." Why Germany was not singled out is ultimately unknowable, but, as we will see, much coverage of the film in the Jewish press was marked by a clear hesitancy.
It is somewhat paradoxical that some of the clearest discursive associations of Jew Süss with Nazi antisemitism came into being through accounts of its censorship in Austria. Shortly after its release in London, the film exhibited in Vienna. Quickly arousing the ire of both Roman Catholic groups and Austrian Nazis, it was removed a mere six days after its opening. Again, only a minority of British mainstream newspapers covered this development. The Daily Mail ran a few lines noting the proscription, though it was attributed only to Catholic disapproval. The Manchester Guardian was somewhat more expansive, stating that there had been "considerable propaganda" directed against the film from "both Nazi and Clerical [sic] sources." Also covering the story was the Jewish press. The Jewish Chronicle recorded the involvement of various reactionary groups — including National Socialists — and remarked on the irony of the situation, given the trouble Austrian distributors were having in getting their films shown in Germany, while the Jewish Times added that the "scene in which Jew Suss is executed particularly provoked antisemitic demonstrations."
Jewish Interest in Jew Süss
That the Jewish press was keeping a close eye on Jew Süss is not a surprise. Emerging in the 1910s and continuing through the 1920s and into the 1930s, a diverse Jewish cinema culture had developed in Britain. Yiddish-language film, Zionist film, and the ethnic romances and comedies that Hollywood produced, such as The Cohens and the Kellys and His People, were part of the Jewish leisure landscape during the period. Tracking the production details of upcoming titles was a common feature of the entertainment pages of Jewish newspapers, and Jew Süss was subject to comment well before it reached cinema screens. In early 1934 the Jewish World reported on production developments and set design, noting "a complete replica of the Ghetto of Frankfort [sic] has been built." The Jewish Chronicle's interest went back even further. In 1928 the paper was reporting that film rights had been sold to Louis Blattner and that an anticipated production was expected to cost one hundred thousand pounds. Following the passing on of rights to Gaumont-British, the same publication listed the film as the first item in a piece on upcoming titles in 1934. Addressing the reader as a distinctly Jewish consumer, it was stated that "Jewish patrons of the cinema will assuredly be intrigued by 'Jew Suss,' which is announced to be released in the autumn."
Upon the film's release it was not only the Jewish press that believed Jews would be interested in the picture. Those areas of the film industry dedicated to marketing and exhibition clearly felt that there was a significant Jewish audience for Jew Süss. Both the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Times featured large pictorial advertisements announcing the film's exhibition at the West End's Tivoli Cinema. Three months after opening in central London, the film moved to local screens and the provinces, and it was again advertised in Jewish newspapers. In the Jewish Times one ad carried copy declaring that the film had been "praised in two continents," featured choice reviews — translated into Yiddish — from both London and New York–based newspapers, and listed the picture houses at which the film was screening. The list of local cinemas exhibiting Jew Süss is itself instructional. Of the six at which it appeared in London, four were in neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations (Whitechapel, Stamford Hill, Dalston, and Hendon). The Jewish Chronicle also carried an advertisement for the screening of the film at Manchester's Piccadilly Cinema. Only occasionally did a provincial cinema advertise in the paper, and when one did, it was inevitably to give notice of a production of particular interest to Jews.
It is perhaps worth dwelling on the character of a couple of the local cinemas at which Jew Süss was distributed, since viewing conditions at these locations could differ sharply from picture houses in non-Jewish areas. A few weeks after the film screened at the Ambassador Cinema in the London suburb of Hendon, the Jewish Chronicle marked the site's third birthday with a short article in which it was estimated that "about forty per cent of the patrons are Jewish." This assertion was reflected in the entertainment program, and the piece went on to describe how the house organist had played the entirety of the Kol Nidre during a recent screening of The House of Rothschild. Somewhat less genteel was the Rivoli Cinema in Whitechapel. A Yiddish theater and boxing venue during a previous life, the Rivoli was located in the heart of Jewish working-class London. Several Yiddish films — including the famous Yiddle with His Fiddle — as well as Zionist films depicting nation building in the Palestine mandate were shown there during the period. It was also something of a communal institution, and on High Holidays the auditorium transformed into a place of worship to accommodate the congregants of the tiny nearby synagogue unable to cope with the extra demand for religious instruction.
Anticipated as an event on the Jewish social calendar and consumed in locations coded as Jewish spaces, the contours of Jew Süss as site of Jewish cultural consumption are beginning to come into view. Yet film reception is not wholly reducible to these extratextual factors of exhibition context, and as Henry Bial and others have argued, minority ethnic readings of cultural texts are frequently marked by specialist knowledge unavailable to majority audiences. Reviewing the film in the Jewish Times, its editor Morris Myer remarked that while Cedric Hardwicke delivered a first-rate performance, "his Rabbi is a little gentile." However, while Jewish audiences doubtless took interest and pleasure in the film's formal qualities for a host of reasons, my concerns are restricted to one area. Overshadowing the Jewish papers' coverage of the film was a keen awareness of its non-Jewish consumption. In addition to the straightforward appraisal of aesthetics (including script and acting quality, production values apparent in the mise-en-scène, and so on) evident in mainstream news titles, the Jewish press expressed concern with the majority's reception. By taking the perspective of the outsider, speculation over how gentile audiences would respond to the piece was articulated at various registers. This represented a signal moment in the animation of a specifically Jewish reception of the film.
Excerpted from Hidden in Plain Sight by Nathan Abrams. Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents
AcknowledgementsNathan Abrams, “Introduction.”
- Gil Toffell, “‘Awaiting, with some anxiety’: The Jewish response to Jew Suss (1934) in 1930s Britain.”
- Phyllis Lassner & Alexis Pogorelskin, “An Anti-Nazi Special Relationship: British Writing, Hollywood Filmmaking, and The Mortal Storm (1940).”
- Lawrence Baron, “Mr. Emmanuel (1944): A Belated British Film about Nazi Antisemitism.”
- Michael Berkowitz, “Jewish questions lurking in Peeping Tom (1960).”
- Gavin Schaffer, “‘You don’t cure a problem by sweeping it under the carpet’: Jews, Sitcoms, and Race Relations in 1960s Britain.”
- Rachel Garfield, “From The Evacuees to Grandma’s House: Class and Jewish Identity on British Television, 1975-2012.”
- Donald Weber, “Peckhlach: Mike Leigh’s Jewish Soul.”
- Claudia Sternberg, “From Pig Farmer to Infidel: Hidden Identities, Diasporic Infertility, and Transethnic Kinship in Contemporary British Jewish Cinema.”
- Michele Byers, “On the Threshold: British-Jewish Femininity in Suzie Gold (2004).”
- Sue Vice, “Christmas Trees and Hannukah Bushes: The ‘Emancipation Contract’ in the British Contemporary Television Dramas Hebburn and Friday Night Dinner.”
- Nir Cohen, “Love and Betrayal: Politicized Romance in Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise (2011).”