Rep Diary: The City Without Jews
The 1924 Austrian silent film The City Without Jews begins with stark, documentary-like scenes of crowds picketing in the streets. Their signs protest their lack of jobs and the rising value of the dollar. The city’s elites celebrate at decadent all-night parties until the cries of the masses force them to do something. One leader suggests that the Jews are to blame for current troubles, and when the power brokers gather inside an enormous hall to debate, anti-Semitism swells until a decision is reached to expel them. “The rose beetle is an altogether beautiful creature,” declares a politician, “but even so, the gardener destroys it because he cares more for his roses.”
The socially progressive Austrian journalist and fiction writer Hugo Bettauer—a Jew by birth who had converted to Evangelism at age 18 in order to advance in the military—had forecast the effects of European anti-Semitism in 1922 with his wildly popular literary satire The City Without Jews: A Novel of Our Time. At the time, Vienna contained prominent anti-Semites who used print materials and public demonstrations to blame the Jews for disease, economic stagnation, and other social problems. Their sentiments, though stoked by their country’s troubles in the wake of the First World War, were far from new. Nearly three decades earlier, the Jewish journalist and political thinker Theodore Herzl, who spent much of his life in Vienna, had reacted to what he was seeing in Europe with his 1896 book The Jewish State, which argued that Jews needed to leave the continent for Zion in order to survive.
In the film adaptation of The City Without Jews, the members of a city’s once-comfortably settled Jewish minority are seen praying urgently, the men wrapped in tallit with the hope that God will keep them safe. These and other colorfully tinted scenes of the city in turmoil depict a teeming fictional metropolis very closely based upon reality. In the early 1920s Vienna had over 200,000 Jews, the third-largest Jewish population of any European city. Many were recent immigrants hailing from countries whose place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been recently dissolved by war; many actively contributed to Vienna’s cultural life, including prominent writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, musicians like Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, and scientists and doctors whose ranks included Sigmund Freud.
Directed by a busy Austrian filmmaker named Hans Karl Breslauer (who shortly afterward switched to writing journalistic articles and fiction full-time), The City Without Jews accurately predicted that Vienna would suffer following its Jewish population’s expulsion. The film adaptation was shelved after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and essentially vanished from sight until the early 1990s, when the Filmarchiv Austria did a near-complete restoration. (Its last scene is still missing.) This Thursday it opens the Museum of Modern Art’s remarkable and extensive two-month film series “Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema,” a survey of historical representations of Vienna made by Austrian as well as by foreign filmmakers whose settings range from the Hapsburg Monarchy through the two World Wars and up to the present day.
The City Without Jews screens with the 1919 farce Sammy Scratches Himself, which features members of a Jewish cabaret group called the Budapest Orpheum Society in a story about mix-ups between working-class Viennese couples. MoMA’s Josh Siegel, associate curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, co-curated the “Vienna Unveiled” series with the Austrian Film Museum’s director, Alexander Horwath, and describes the double bill as portraying “a contrast between the times before and after the actual exile, deportation, and extermination of Vienna’s Jews, which The City Without Jews anticipated.” Yet both films are comedies, with some members of the Budapest Orpheum Society even appearing in both as actors. The City Without Jews, too, approaches farce. Its frightening premise becomes the backdrop to a theatrically staged and framed romance between a liberal politician’s daughter named Lotte Lindner (played by Breslauer’s frequent lead actress, Anny Milety) and her Jewish fiancé, Leo Strakosch (Johannes Rieman), whom the deportation laws tear apart.
Leo eventually sneaks back into town under an elaborate false mustache and the alias of a French painter named “Henri Dufresne,” and plots with his beloved over when to reveal his ruse to her father while hatching schemes to change people’s minds about bringing the Jews back. These include posting leaflets by a fictitious group called the Union of True Christians advocating for the Jews’ return and getting the anti-Semitic politician Councillor Bernart (Hans Moser) drunk so that he misses a crucial vote. Happiness follows as families reunite and people of different ages and faiths embrace.
The film does not end there, however, as Breslauer and co-screenwriter Ida Jenbach had made a few key preemptive changes from their source text, most likely in order to please the censors. While the novel identifies its setting as present-day Vienna, the film takes place in “the legendary republic of Utopia,” and though Bettauer’s book ends with its anti-Jewish laws rescinded and Leo’s identity restored, the film goes on to reveal the whole tale as having taken place entirely in a nightmare of Councillor Bernart, who awakens a changed man and declares that people should live at peace with each other. These changes were enough for Bettauer to disavow any connection with the film, which he believed had altered his book’s meaning. For him, rather than positing anti-Semitism as a real problem to be fought in a real place, the film version of The City Without Jews placed it in an imaginary realm and called it the stuff of dreams.
Indeed, the friction between the fantasy that the film The City Without Jews presents and the reality of the fate of Vienna’s Jewish citizens is what potentially gives the work its greatest interest today. While all of Utopia’s Jews are simply deported (on borrowed trains) to other European countries and to Zion, to be later returned to their homes, the Nazis sent 65,000 of Vienna’s Jews away to be murdered. (An additional 130,000 fled and did not return.) Breslauer joined the Nazi Party in 1940. Bettauer had been murdered in 1925, the year after the film’s release, by a Hitler partisan; his son Helmut was deported in 1942 to Auschwitz and thereafter vanished from public records.
The City Without Jews and Sammy Scratches Himself screens February 27 at the Museum of Modern Art, accompanied by an original score performed by the Austria-born co-founder of the New York Theremin Society, Dorit Chrysler. “Vienna Unveiled: A City in Cinema” runs February 27 through April 20 at MoMA and takes place in association with Carnegie Hall’s “Vienna: City of Dreams” festival and in celebration of the Austrian Film Museum’s 50th anniversary.