The Austrian silent film “The City Without Jews” was released in 1924. From today’s perspective, the title refers to a later historical point in time, to the deportation and murder of European Jews by the Germans and their allies.
In fact, the political situation was already poisoned and brutal in the years after the First World War. The Viennese director Hans Karl Breslauer filmed a book with the same title by the writer Hugo Bettauer, who was shot and died in Vienna following hostility from the right-wing press from around the Austrian NSDAP. His killer was acquitted of insanity by a jury, admitted to a psychiatric clinic, and was released two years later. The director Breslauer joined the NSDAP in 1940. But you should try to look at the film according to your own rules. Teleology blocks the view of the peculiarity of the moment – the prerequisite for the later crime against humanity.
Breslauer’s film is at the end of a phase of Expressionist cinema, which is about overpowering structures and powerless figures. The cinematic space, the décor and the camera are everything, the people, on the other hand, are nothing, the corridor is crooked because the streets are crooked. This applies to the overflowing houses of »Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari ”(1920) as well as for the wall that“ The tired death ”(1921) built around his empire, or the modern hotel building in which the old porter loses all support as“ The Last Man ”(1924). The scenes of the “City without Jews” mostly show a perspective flight in the background, suggesting freedom of choice, but the figures freeze into pillars of salt in the foreground due to all the external demands. Documentary-like crowd scenes serve as the motor of the plot and reference to the real world. They show the rebellious crowds and the Jews who are forced to leave. But these scenes seem completely automatic and unconscious.
“The city without Jews” takes place in a kind of city-state called Utopia, a land that seems to end at the municipal walls – a very beautiful symbol for Austria then and now. There is a chancellor who maintains diplomatic and economic relations with other countries. The railroad takes you to a place called Zion. According to a council resolution, all Jews from the city-state are banished there. We do not find out what Zion is like, nor how the displaced are faring there. The movie’s perspective is clearly non-Jewish. Far away in America lives a wealthy anti-Semite who grants the chancellor a large loan – on condition that he banishes the Jews. The loan offer comes at the right time because the economic crisis is rampant and the people are rebelling in the streets.
The Chancellor is driven by fear. His speech to the council begins with a philosemitic and ends with an anti-Semitic one. Seldom does one see the togetherness of these two poles so perfectly. The Chancellor praised the Jews for their economic power and thus justified their exclusion: Their racial superiority made them a danger. The economic crisis and the misery of the people are due to the conditions that run above their heads and behind their backs, as Theodor W. Adorno once wrote. It is wrong, but also obvious, to look for the causes in one’s direct field of vision. It is just as wrong to see people as completely incapable of acting. Ultimately, nobody’s hands are so tied in “The City Without Jews” as the anti-Semitic councilor Bernard. Anti-Semitism is presented as a psychosis in him. As the somnambulist Cesare in the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ”he ends up in a crooked, painted cell, which, in keeping with his madness, is teeming with stars of David.
One of the basic constants of anti-Semitism is to identify Jews as traders or bankers with capitalism, which is known to have no appearance of its own. The fact that a large part of Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century was as impoverished as many non-Jews was (and is) deliberately overlooked. Even without Jewish traders and bankers, the politico-economic process continues in its crisis-prone form as well as in its alienating normal execution.
Capitalism is indifferent to the fate of individuals. Anti-Semites find this difficult to imagine. They not only take their own economic powerlessness personally, but also the economic power of others. This is shown in a misunderstood way in “The City Without Jews”. Although the film pursues an educational mission, it itself serves racist assumptions. He misunderstood anti-Semitism as mere prejudice against the Jews. Then the question is negotiated whether the natural Jewish superiority harms or benefits the Germans. The city-state and its councilors finally go through a purification in self-experiment – from the false assumption of the pest to the certainty of the beneficial one.
“The city without Jews” was considered lost after the Second World War. A part was found in the Amsterdam Film Museum, and other damaged sequences turned up at a Paris flea market. The Filmarchiv Austria only presented a restored version two years ago, which is now available on DVD. For the new version of the film, Olga Neuwirth developed new music for classical ensemble and electronics. As she herself writes in the booklet enclosed with the DVD, a camouflage technique, “a combination of ironic distance and powerful anger”, is characteristic of this new composition. The film composer uses this to comment on her material in a political way, highlighting ambivalences and bigotry aural. At the same time she uses samples of the recordings of yodelling chants, with which she refers to general anti-Semitic affinities in Austria, also beyond the cinematic plot and beyond the year 1924.
Hans Karl Breslauer: The city without Jews (Austria, 1924), DVD, 87 minutes, music: Olga Neuwirth (2019), absolut media, 2020