Across the years, I have seen countless films-- documentaries, fictional stories, and everything in between-- that center on the Holocaust. One of the most powerful is NIGHT AND FOG, a 30-minute-long documentary made by Alain Resnais, which dates from the mid-1950’s. I screen NIGHT AND FOG in one of my UAlbany classes, and the responses are collectively jaw-dropping. NIGHT AND FOG has in recent years been joined by SON OF SAUL, the well-deserved Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award-winner in 2015. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: This mesmerizing film is not just the best of its year; I would say that it is the best of any year.
Well, I now would add to this shortlist a complete version of a newly-rediscovered Austrian film, titled CITY WITHOUT JEWS, which dates from 1924: a full decade-and-a-half before the outbreak of World War II. Given the year in which it was made, CITY WITHOUT JEWS is of course a silent film. It is based on a 1922 novel by Hugo Bettauer, an Austrian writer, and it cites the Jew-hating that was gaining in popularity post-World War I. The film was found languishing in a flea market in Paris in 2016, and was digitally restored by the Austrian film archive before it was made available earlier this year.
One can sit and watch CITY WITHOUT JEWS and stare incredulously at what is befalling those on-screen. The images only begin with a Jewish man who is beaten up on a street. Jewish males are separated from their non-Jewish families and summarily deported. And so on... And if you know your history, none of this will be surprising. Granted, we may know that Austrian Jews were not deported until 1939. Around one-third of the country’s 190,000 Jews ended up being murdered. Still, CITY WITHOUT JEWS is a mirror of the sad reality of anti-Semitism in Austria at a certain point in time.
“Jewish citizens made enormous contributions to Austria,” noted Nikolaus Wostry, the archive’s associate director. “They were the most loyal citizens, and the Austrians abused this. Everyone was scapegoating the Jews. It was the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, and not just the Nationalists doing it. We are taking this film as a responsibility and political statement, when anti-Semitism and the political abuse of fear is rising in Europe now.”
Let me add that, today, so many people, starting with those who hail from the U.S., are not acknowledging history. But we are doing a great disservice to ourselves by shrugging our shoulders in boredom when confronted by the facts of history and the reality of anti-Semitism or slavery or whatever. This explains why powerful films are must-sees, despite their sobering and unpleasant content. They only begin with NIGHT AND FOG, SON OF SAUL, and CITY WITHOUT JEWS.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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