In the black and white footage of a silent film, Austrian Jews are harassed in the public market, physically menaced by thugs in the street, and forced en masse from the country, on foot or by train. Orthodox men, distinguished by their prayer shawls, payot, and traditional dress, carry Torah scrolls. The expulsion of Jews rips mixed-faith families in two.
Familiar though this story may seem, these scenes are not taken from history. They come from a long-lost film that predates the Nazi period by a decade, Die Stadt Ohne Juden (The City Without Jews). Released in 1924, it was adapted from a satirical novel by Hugo Bettauer, an Austrian Jewish writer and journalist. At a time when Hitler was still a marginal figure, Bettauer was a vocal proponent of liberal views, including tolerance of homosexuals, education for women, and reduced punishments for those who received abortions — and, of course, the condemnation of anti-Semitism. The film portrayed the targeting of Austria’s Jews as a dystopian future.
The City Without Jews was once considered lost forever. Around 90% of silent films have fallen into obscurity; many were scrapped for the silver and plastic in their film stock as they fell out of fashion in the age of “talkies.”
But in 2015, a collector discovered a complete copy of the film at a flea market in Paris, causing a sudden surge of interest. The Filmarchiv Austria (Austrian Film Archive) led a crowdfunding campaign to cover the restoration of the much-anticipated footage. As reported by the BBC, some 700 people contributed a total of over €86,000 ($107,000) so the film could be digitally re-released in its entirety. It will be screened at a series of international destinations, and features from March until the end of the year in an exhibition at the Filmarchiv Austria, Die Stadt Ohne, which connects the persecution of Jews to present-day persecution of Muslims, refugees, and immigrants.
“The newly found material includes the lost ending of the film, while other new sequences found reveal an obviously dramaturgically staged parallel narrative,” Larissa Bainschab, a press officer at the Austrian Film Archive, told Hyperallergic in an email. “Previously unknown images show Jewish life in Vienna and attacks against them. The expressionist scene featuring Hans Moser [a famous Austrian actor] in the role of a ruthless anti-Semite is now available in its entirety for the first time. All in all, the political message of the film and the depiction of murderous anti-Semitism in Vienna in the 1920s are now significantly more sharply articulated.”
In a 2015 video by the Austrian Film Archive, Managing Director Dr. Nikolaus Wostry, suggests that the film is a kind of national treasure — both a crucial jewel in the crown of Austria’s long history of film, as well as an early example of politically-engaged film.
“It was, for us, really astonishing to find this second source of the film in Paris,” said Wostry, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “There was a certain degree of self-censorship with the film following its release, an attempt to make its social critique less sharp, but it presents a much clearer anti-Nazi sentiment.”
Wostry said that Austrian silent films were for-profit ventures, so provocative political films were extremely rare. The movie also represents a stirring counterpoint to Austria’s historical connection to Nazism and anti-Semitic propaganda. (Hitler himself was born in Austria.) “Already in the 19th century, Austria was the center of the politcal anti-Semitism, Wostry said. “Hitler got his inspiration in Vienna.”
As the buzz around the re-release of this film builds, historians and journalists have hailed the narrative as oddly prescient — but this is perhaps a limited viewpoint, when one considers that the history of Judaism contains countless tales of expulsion, enslavement, and attempts at extermination; many long predate the high-profile mass murder of approximately 6 million Jews, and millions of people from other persecuted groups, under Nazi rule.
The City Without Jews opened in 1924 at all five of Vienna’s major movie theaters, to enormous demand. As is now clear from the complete ending, which concludes with Austria acknowledging its wrongs and inviting the Jews back home for a joyful reunion of lovers and families, the film was quite overt in its message. Ironically, what was essentially a dystopian film concluded on a happier note than the actual history. Bettauer became the target of a virulent hate campaign, and was ultimately murdered by a Nazi named Otto Rothstock.
As worldwide practitioners of the Jewish faith prepare to touch off Passover celebrations this evening, it seems a timely moment to reflect on a history of racial intolerance and persecution that goes back as far as the Book of Exodus. Though The City Without Jews is not a documentary, it stands as an astonishing document and proxy narrative for a story that unfortunately came true — and could all too easily happen again.
Die Stadt Ohne continues at the Filmarchiv Austria (Johannesgasse 4, 1010 Vienna, Austria) until December 30.