In 1940 the Nazis released a propaganda film called The Eternal Jew. The film claimed to show the Jews in their “original state,” “before they put on the mask of civilized Europeans.” Stagings of Jewish rituals were interspersed with scenes of yarmulke- and caftan-wearing Jews shuffling down crowded alleys, all meant to show the benighted nature of Jewish life. Above all, the filmmakers focused on Jewish faces. They trained their cameras in lingering close-up on their subjects’ eyes, noses, beards, and mouths, confident that the sight of certain stereotypical features would arouse responses of loathing and contempt.
The designer of the film’s poster evidently agreed, avoiding more obvious symbols of Jewish identity (skull-cap, sidecurls, Star of David) in favor of a single dark, hook-nosed, fleshy face. Indeed, the poster hardly needed the accompanying title. In Europe in 1940, this representation of Jewishness was widespread: similar depictions of Jews could be seen on posters and in pamphlets, newspapers, even children’s books.
This image of the Jew, however, was far from “eternal.” Though anti-Semitism is notoriously “the longest hatred,” until 1000 CE, there were no easily distinguishable Jews of any kind in Western imagery, let alone the stereotypical swarthy, hook-nosed Jew. Earlier monuments and manuscripts did depict Hebrew prophets, Israelite armies, and Judaic kings, but they were identifiable only by context, in no way singled out as different from other sages, soldiers, or kings. Even nefarious Jewish characters, such as the priests (pontifices) who urged Pilate to crucify Christ in the Egbert Codex (circa 980), were visually unremarkable; they required labels to identify them as Jewish.