Silent Classic ‘The City Without Jews’ Wavers Between Satire and Grim Prophecy

It's the privilege of satire to apply one's opponents' "logic" towards a reductio ad absurdum, as we see in The City without Jews.

The City without Jews (Die Stadt ohne Juden)
H.K. Breslauer
Flicker Alley
25 August 2020

Flicker Alley presents a DVD/Blu-ray combo of the Austrian Film Archive’s restoration of H.K. Breslauer’s 1924 silent film The City Without Jews (Die Stadt ohne Juden), a title whose existence and survival are pretty much miraculous.

In the imaginary city of Utopia, which strongly resembles Vienna, people are ready to riot over inflation and unemployment, and it’s popular to blame the Jews. Although no mention is made of the recent war and armistice that created these conditions in Austria and Germany, the film spends time blaming fatcat “speculators” (in other words, capitalist parasites) who live high after manipulating the currency markets.

The town’s Councillor (Eugen Neufeld) reluctantly answers the people’s cry, against the advice of his colleague, and orders all Jews expelled from the city by Christmas. This leads to the film’s most remarkable and chilling scenes, as Jewish citizens board trains for Zion or, for those who can’t afford it, are forced to walk as a ragged line of refugees along the roads.

Far from solving the town’s problems, the evacuation of Jews causes the decline of business and culture and leads to isolation from foreign trade and banking. Meanwhile, a Jewish trickster-hero (Johannes Riemann) returns in disguise as a French Catholic and spreads counter-propaganda via posters signed as “The True Christian”.


(courtesy of Flicker Alley)

This is where the satire of bestselling novelist and journalist Hugo Bettauer comes in. He created a sensation with this novel in 1922. This Austrian Jew was a confrontational figure who wrote on many controversial topics, including sexuality and abortion, and if his arguments sometimes play into anti-Semitic prejudices, it’s the privilege of satire to apply one’s opponents’ “logic” towards a reductio ad absurdum.

The film features handsome production design, comical double-exposures of Jewish angels, the tilting of the camera during a drunken spree, eye-catching location filming, and pacy editing and cross-cutting. The ending shows the chief anti-Semitic politico (Hans Moser) clapped in a loony bin designed to remind viewers of the wild Expressionism of Robert Wiene‘s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

As you can imagine, this independently produced Austrian film wasn’t distributed after the Nazis came to power. An incomplete copy was discovered in Amsterdam in 1991. In 2015, a collector discovered a nitrate print in a Paris flea market. Both versions are combined into this restored and tinted digital scan with a new musical score.

As historian-archivist Nikolaus Wostry explains in a bonus interview, Jewish screenwriter Ida Benbach added sobering elements not in the book and based on her own awareness of pogroms. Benbach, who often collaborated with director Breslauer, died in the Holocaust. This appears to have been Breslauer’s last film.


(courtesy of Flicker Alley)

Perhaps more sobering is what happened to Bettauer, who seems to have enjoyed the role of provocateur and poker of sticks into society’s bloodshot eye. The film’s popularity played a part in inflaming more anti-Semitic attacks against him. He was shot to death by a young Nazi in 1925. After two years, the killer was released from a mental institution. It probably didn’t resemble Caligari’s. That’s another reason why, despite the film’s happy ending, it feels more nightmarishly prophetic than reassuring.

A pertinent bonus is the 46-minute Victims of Hatred (Opfers des Hasses), made by Vienna’s Jewish Relief Organization in 1923 for fundraisers on behalf of their cause. Before showing the good work and physical plant that contributors would be supporting, the film dramatizes a flashback of a once-prosperous Russian factory owner whose business and home were stolen by Bolsheviks who also killed most of his family in a pogrom. This interpretation of recent history contrasts sharply with Soviet films about fatcat factory owners and regressive Kulaks who get in the way of the workers’ state.

Another nice bonus is the booklet with essays from several contributors.

RATING 8 / 10