Audrey Kupferberg: The City Without Jews | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: The City Without Jews

Sep 15, 2020

Audrey Kupferberg

The City Without Jews, an Austrian silent feature film from 1924, has been rediscovered and restored.  It is available for home viewing with a musical score on Blu-ray and DVD through Flicker Alley.  The title is a shocker, especially coming several years before Hitler’s rise to power and well more than a decade before the Holocaust.  But anti-Semitism didn’t originate with the Nazis; it’s ages old.  In this story, the Jewish population is expelled from a fictional version of Vienna.  The head councilor is warned ahead of time, “Abandon your project!  Inhumanity doesn’t make for good politics.”  Now, to my mind, that is a warning that has never grown stale.

And the mean-spirited plan definitely turns out to be a mistake.  Soon the leadership and the remaining Christian citizenry realize what a loss the expulsion means to the arts, culture, consumerism, politics, and even to romance; and the Viennese leaders, in desperation, call back the Jews.

In 1922, Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer published a novel – a social satire—called Die Stadt ohne Juden, The City Without Jews, which became a best-seller.  Two years later, this film adaptation was released. Prints were screened throughout Europe until the Nazi Party seized complete power over Germany in 1933.  After that, materials disappeared.  A fragment was uncovered in 1991 at the Filmarchiv Austria.  Then, at a flea market in Paris in 2015, a 35mm nitrate print turned up and soon after was archivally preserved.

The film begins with the leadership of fictional Vienna decrying the failing economy, even as we see speculators living the high life.  The lower and working classes are angry; they take to the streets yelling accusations that Jews have taken their jobs.  In gruesome scenes which may predate the Holocaust but certainly bring to mind the pogroms of Russia, middle-class and wealthy Jews take to the trains which await their entry, and poorer Jews, including the elderly and infirm, flee on foot on muddy roads.

A rich American anti-Semite, Mr. Huxtable, offers to loan the city a huge amount of money if the Jews get lost.  Later, Huxtable actually becomes engaged to a Jewess, so no more money is forthcoming.

The main character is a clever Jew named Leo Strakosch, the husband-to-be of one of the government councilor’s daughters.  Leo has been living a life of exile in Paris, but he returns to the city in a disguise and wages a campaign to bring back the Jews.

The City Without Jews offers a fascinating and disturbing plotline.  There is a bit of humor, romance, and a theme of social justice.  Most of the film is shot in a pedestrian manner, no special talent; however, a few brief scenes are presented in the German Expressionist style which began with the uniquely creative film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920.

The ending of the film offers this wisdom:  All peoples are brothers. “We must walk hand in hand.”

The novelist Hugo Bettauer was born a Jew but converted to the Lutheran faith in order to rise within the ranks of the military.  He wrote a good number of best-selling books.  Another which was adapted to film was Joyless Street, which features young Greta Garbo in an early starring role.

Bettauer’s politics made him an enemy of the rising Nazi Party, and he was shot to death by a Nazi sympathizer in 1925.  It is written that the authorship of his controversial work, The City Without Jews, was the factor that brought about his early demise.

The film is conceived in an acceptable manner typical for 1924, and at times is exciting to watch, but it also serves as a sickening reminder of peoples’ long-lived, toxic hatreds.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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