Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) is a silent Expressionist film, one of the few surviving films from Austria by Hans Karl Breslauer. It was first shown in Vienna on 24th July 1924.
The Austrian Archive had a poor quality, incomplete print, but a complete copy in good condition was found in a Paris flea market in 2015 and the whole film was re-assembled and restored thanks to a crowd funding appeal.
A basic soundtrack was added but last night’s screening was accompanied by the Ensemble Klang, playing a new setting by celebrated Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. The ten-piece orchestra set the perfect moods of the action, at times grim, then turning to comedy, then to farce. At times they managed to get a very authentic 1920s/30s Germanic cabaret sound with muted trumpet and trombone, though it was the extensive array of percussion than dominated.
Director Hans Karl Breslauer adapted Hugo Bettauer’s very successful 1922 book but the film was less popular as it was more overtly critical of the already burgeoning Nazi party. It was banned in some towns and Bettauer later vilified. Breslauer had moderated the story somewhat, but still, the caricature of antisemitism is the essence of the film in which a Jew-hating Chancellor decides to banish Jews from the country (Austria, ironically renamed Utopia) to solve all the problems from housing to work shortages.
On the Christmas Day deadline the Jews make their exit, trudging into the snow-covered mountains, on their way to Zion. The problem is that the wealthy Jews, the bankers, the artists, the playwrights were banished as well and soon the evil, Bela Lugosi look-a-like Chancellor finds that hotels are empty, fashion houses collapse for lack of clients, cafes are struggling and become vulgar beer halls, American financiers no longer lend the country money and inflation spirals out of control.
At this point, strangely, the story turns to comedy. The daughter of an important man had a Jewish fiancé, now expelled, but soon to return, disguised as a French painter, moustache, easel and all. He secretly prints flyers under the guise of the Christian League and pastes them around the city, calling for the Jews to be invited back.
The citizens see the good sense of this but parliament has to vote. The faux Frenchman gets one of the important councillors drunk and abducts him, making him miss the meeting, and the vote to goes through. When the councillor comes to, abandoned by the Frenchman’s chauffeur at the top of a mountain, he runs to a lunatic asylum to telephone his protest. The doctors in the asylum, seeing his uncontrolled rage take him for a madman and he ends up incarcerated in an cell reminiscent of Nosferatu’s attic eyrie, hallucinating that the Star of David is floating wherever he looks.
It is no surprise that it is always the creatives, such as writers or artists who have the imagination to sense how far a situation can go if certain early aberrations are not realised and checked – think Brexit in the UK, where the government is now intending to apply strict immigration controls which will probably render the country unable to function.
To a large extent the film was an eerie prediction of what was to come in the following decade, including the beating and humiliations of Jews in the streets, although in no measure could either Breslauer or Hugo Bettauer have imagined how far they were from the crimes that were to be committed by the Nazis against the Jews – it was inconceivable then just as it remains today.
To me there was however a very distasteful element in this film, which was intended, perhaps to show the terrible situation in which the Jews found themselves. They were represented mostly as Hassidic and poor, dressed in rags and living in squalor – exactly as Goebbels represented them of his odious propaganda posters. Not the rich but the poor Jews were the ones seen shuffling along the snowed-up mountain roads. That it was predominantly financial concerns – the business acumen of the bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs – not the humanitarian ones which eventually necessitated their recall was strangely glossed over in the film.
At the end, the Mayor welcomed the young man disguised as a ‘Frenchman’ with a hearty handshake and bouquets of flowers as the first Jew to return with the words: Welcome back, Dear Jew.
How differently it all turned out in reality.
Soon after the first showing of the film the author Hugo Bettauer was shot dead by Otto Rothstock, a confirmed Nazi Party member who was declared insane at his trial but freed a year later and hailed as a hero. Astrid Burchardt 21st February 2020