Die Stadt ohne Juden (City Without Jews) is an Austrian film made in 1924 by Hans Karl Breslauer. It was adapted by Breslauer and the playwright and screenwriter Ida Jenbach from the best-selling novel of the same name by Hugo Bettauer. Bettauer’s novel is speculative fiction in the vein of H. G. Wells or G. K. Chesterton whereas the film is a satirical comedy with a few Expressionistic touches that suggest Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It imagines a city (Vienna in the book but called Utopia in the film) that has been ravaged by hyperinflation. The rich are left untouched whilst the poor starve. Some of the most angry and dissatisfied in society put the blame on the city’s Jewish population and a law is passed banning all Jews from the city limits. This only serves to make the problems worse as the economy stagnates and social and cultural life becomes dull without the contribution of the Jewish community.
It is a remarkably prescient film and one of the first to attack anti-Semitism and political populism. It seems even more topical now with the current rise of far-Right populist politicians in Europe and the Americas. The film was thought lost for many decades until a truncated version was discovered in 1991. Missing footage was found in a Paris flea market in 2016 and the Austrian Film Archive organised a crowdfunding initiative to raise the 75,000 Euros needed to reconstruct the film. Olga Neuwirth was commissioned to write a score which received its world premiere in Vienna last week.
The new version, in a beautiful print, makes the narrative clearer although the pacing seems more ponderous. There are some remarkable scenes of Jewish life, including a service in a synagogue. Crowd scenes are striking and well-choreographed.
It is still a difficult film to watch. The knowledge that a decade later the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany would lead to the horror of the Holocaust governs any viewing. Scenes such as Jews being loaded onto trains heading out of the city or elderly Jews being forced out of their homes and trudging into the gathering dusk are unbearably moving.
Part of the discomfort is that City Without Jews is also a comedy. Breslauer cross-cuts around the the city to show the consequences of the expulsions for everyone, sometimes in a playful manner. The hypocrisy of the Chancellor is underlined as he is not initially an anti-Semite but changes his mind when he sees how well anti-Semitism plays with the masses. The stupidity of Bernart, the leader of the anti-Semitic party on the city council, is emphasised in the broad performance of the Austrian comedian Hans Moser. He is drugged so that he will miss the crucial vote on repealing the expulsion law and ends up confined to an asylum cell dominated by a large Star of David throne where he has delusions of being a Zionist. The Jewish Leo disguises himself as a rich and extravagantly moustachioed French painter and returns to the city where his gentile girlfriend Lottie is singularly impressed by his new guise.
Most problematic is the happy ending. Leo drums up support to rescind the expulsion laws. The self-interest of the gentile population wins through as the economy goes into freefall without the Jewish population, the exiled Jews are invited back and both groups are eventually united. Leo saves the day and gets the girl! Even in 1924 this must have felt synthetic and evasive.
Olga Neuwirth is a natural cinephile. She studied both music and film at university and has been inspired by film throughout her career, most notably in her video-opera based on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. For City Without Jews Neuwirth uses an nine-piece ensemble and also includes sampled sounds, such as crowd noises and rumbling electronica. Sometimes the music provides ironic distance from the film’s images and sometimes distorted musical stereotypes are used to draw us into the world of the film. The musicians play tiny fragments of Austrian popular music, including yodelling, a saxophone suggests a1920s’ dance-band and the viola and cello gesture towards French salon music. At times Kurt Weill seems not too far away. It is restrained and only rarely draws attention to itself at the expense of the image. Nacho de Paz drew committed playing from the PHACE Ensemble, although a problem with the pre-recorded sound meant that the film had to be restarted.
The story of the film’s creators is itself a lesson from history. A year after the film’s premiere the novelist Bettaur was murdered by a former member of the National Socialist party. The Jewish screenwriter Ida Jenbach died either in the Minsk ghetto or a labour camp. Breslauer gave up directing for writing, joined the Nazi Party in 1940 and contributed to pro-Hitler newspapers before eventually dying in obscurity in 1965.