“THE HO– USE OF ROTHSCHILD”—Dealing with Anti-Semitism in the Movies

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“The House of Rothschild”

Dealing with Anti-Semitism in the Movies

Amos Lassen

Some of you might wonder why I am reviewing a film that was released in 1934 and the answer is quite simple. Lately we have seen an overt rise in anti-Semitism all over the world and while reading about this; I decided to have a look at the image of the Jew as portrayed in some of the classic films that have come out. “The House of Rothschild” is one of those films and it actually won the Academy Award as best film in the year it was released. It has almost been a standing argument as to why filmmakers have not dealt with Nazism and anti-Semitism in the movies. There are those that say that the heads of Hollywood studios did not want controversy while others have said that it is probably because the industry moguls were Jews themselves and they did not want to bring attention to who they were. And there were others who claim that economics played a role in it and that American movie studios had strong financial interests in Germany and did not want to make anyone angry. And then there are those that say that films about the subject would indeed stir up more anti-Semitism. Finally there was the Motion Picture Association’s Production Code Office whose responsibility it was to self-censor.

Then in 1933, Darryl F. Zanuck decided to take on Nazism and anti-Semitism at his new studio, Twentieth Century Pictures, and took an idea from actor George Arliss and produced “The House of Rothschild.” Now we have to think about who would make a movie about a Jewish banking family at the time that the Nazi party was picking up strength in Germany and the reaction was that this picture was one that no one who was Jewish wanted to see made. Zanuck, however, was not Jewish and wished to attack anti-Semitism and against all kinds of resistance he made the film. If we pay attention to the listings on television we see that “The House of Rothschild” is airing on the Turner Classic Movies channel, as part of the month-long series, “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film.”

This is a movie that has been by and large forgotten and was misunderstood by many. George Arliss plays two parts— father and son Mayer and Nathan Rothschild. As Mayer Amschel, some see him as anti-Semitic.  We see him playing with coins and trying to find a way not to pay taxes. This does not promote a comfortable feeling. However, this is the reality of the way things were.

As we learn more of the family’s predicament and the excessive restrictions and attacks brought on the residents of Jew Street in the ghetto, we soon understand and we empathize with Mayer, his wife and five sons. Arliss and Zanuck took wanted to create a sympathetic portrait of Mayer and to show him as a Jew who was a persecuted minority and deprived of rights.

In order to cover any possible bad feelings by the audience toward the family, the film introduced a fictional anti-Semite, Prussian Count Ledrantz,  (Boris Karloff). In watching the film from beginning to end, Zanuck wanted to show that the restrictions that were put on Jews were discriminatory. Jews were attacked just because they were Jews but despite this they were many Jews like the Rothschilds who went after their dreams and they were able to become successful and wealthy.  Even though the film was set in Bavaria of the 18th and 19th century, American audiences understood its contemporary anti-Nazi message, some even believing it to be too pro-Semitic.

American Jews were well aware of the growing strength of the Nazis as Germany’s economic woes got worse, but Hitler’s defeat in 1932 provided some relief and many considered Nazism as a fringe group. When Hitler was named Chancellor just a few months later and democratic Germany overnight became a totalitarian state, we were shocked. There was a heightened sense of concern among those who oversaw Jewish communal life when Nazi propaganda was making its way to America. Those in the movie industry were well aware of this.

Work on “The House of Rothschild,” began just months after Hitler’s rise to power and at a time of great anxiety about rising anti-Semitism in America is important here. Many things came into play–the depressed economy, the need for a start-up film company to have important and press-worthy films and a developing Jewish communal structure was not sure how to make itself heard.

 The film is the story of the rise of the Rothschild financial empire founded by Mayer Rothschild and continued by his five sons. From humble beginnings the business grows and helps to finance the war against Napoleon, but it was not always easy, especially because of the prejudices against Jews. We see a sign stating that on Jew Street “All Jews must be inside the Jew Street by Sundown, Chancellor of Prussia.”
 The rest is for you to see in the film itself.

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