Recovered in Paris flea market, 1924 Austrian silent film is a Holocaust preview
Based on famous novel and digitally restored, ‘City Without Jews’ includes stunningly prescient scenes depicting passage of anti-Jewish laws and deportations from Vienna
A Jewish man is beaten up on the street. Jewish husbands are separated from their non-Jewish wives and children, and deported on trains. A Jewish community, led by rabbis carrying a Torah scrolls, marches down a dark road as it is banished from town.
These snapshots appear to be Holocaust history — but they are not. These are scenes from a silent Austrian film made a decade prior to the enactment of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws, and some 15 years before the outbreak of World War II.
The 1924 film “City Without Jews” is based on a popular 1922 novel by Austrian writer and journalist Hugo Bettauer. It astutely predicted what was to come. But only partially.
The film was conceived as a satirical response to the anti-Semitism gaining popular and political strength in Austria during the early inter-war period. Its plot depicted the scapegoating of the Jews for the country’s problems and their subsequent expulsion.
But unlike in the real Holocaust, these Jews are eventually reinstated when the Austrians realized their country was suffering from the absence of the creative and successful Jewish community. In real life, Austria’s Jews were deported beginning in October 1939, and most did not come back. Approximately one-third of Austria’s 190,000 Jews were killed, and only 5,000 were in the country by the end of the war.
“City Without Jews” was originally presumed to have been lost to history. However, a surprise discovery by a collector of a complete and relatively intact copy of the movie in a Paris flea market in 2016 led to a year-long painstaking analog and digital restoration and preservation project by Film Archiv Austria, the national Austrian film archive. The archive dedicated a team of six to the effort, which cost € 202,000, of which more than 40% was raised in a crowdfunding campaign.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Anschluss of Austria this year, and next’s observance of the centennial of the establishment of the First Austrian Republic, the restored version of “City Without Jews” is being screened throughout Austria, and in selected European cities. It will also be included in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this summer, and the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival early next year. In addition, Film Archiv Austria has created a catalogue, educational material and an exhibit to complement the film.
“We can’t celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First Republic without putting the finger on this point of anti-Semitism. Jewish citizens made enormous contributions to Austria. They were the most loyal citizens, and the Austrians abused this. Everyone was scapegoating the Jews. It was the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, and not just the Nationalists doing it,” said Film Archiv Austria associate director Nikolaus Wostry.
“We are taking this film as a responsibility and political statement, when anti-Semitism and the political abuse of fear is rising in Europe now,” Wostry said.
According to Wostry, the flea market find was extremely rare, as more than 90% of silent films worldwide have been lost. Once talkies came along, there was little interest in preserving silent films, especially when people could make a profit from recycling them for their silver content.
Another copy of “City Without Jews” was discovered in 1991 in the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. However, it was only a partial copy and was severely decomposed.
The Paris discovery allowed Film Archiv Austria to create a full version of the original film. It also enabled it to discover not only differences between Bettauer’s book and the film, but also significant variations between the two copies of the film.
Although Bettauer’s book has characters clearly based on political figures of the day, the film is a bit looser in its characterizations. Yet, it is clear in the film that the Christian Socialists come to power led by the fictional Chancellor Dr. Schwerdtfeger, a fanatical anti-Semite. Convinced that the Jews are ruining the republic, he has the National Assembly pass a law forcing all Jews to emigrate by the end of the year. The Jews — religious and assimilated alike — leave, taking with them whatever belongings they can carry with them.
Soon, everything starts to fall apart. Commerce slows down, the cosmopolitan cafés revert to seedy taverns, and the national currency goes into free fall. Realizing the terrible mistake that has been done, the National Assembly decides to pass a law welcoming back the Jews.
The hero of the film, a Jewish artist named Leo Strakosch, sneaks back into Vienna disguised as a non-Jewish Parisian painter. He, along with his non-Jewish fiancée, Lotte, the daughter of a sympathetic member of the National Assembly, scheme to ensure the new law is passed. They kidnap an anti-Semitic member of the Assembly and keep him away from the chamber until voting is over.
In the book, the assembly member is committed to an insane asylum. In the film, he is merely knocked out for a while, and is shown dreaming that he is trapped in a disorienting, claustrophobic cell, with Stars of David closing in on him from all directions.
Finally, the Jews are welcomed back with great fanfare — Leo Strakosch, the first among them.
“The French flea market find meant that we could now reconstruct the film in a way that was more political and show that it was clearly an anti-Nazi statement,” Wostry said.
The intertitles in the partial copy found in 1991 did not mention the words Jew or anti-Semitism until around the seven-minute mark.
“The French version had more hard-hitting intertitles. The Dutch version was screened for the first time after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. So there could have been some self-censorship going on. Or maybe the Dutch thought the narrative was too far-fetched and couldn’t imagine it actually happening,” Wostry said.
Above: A Jew is beaten on the street in “City Without Jews”
The production and distribution records for silent films generally did not survive, but a considerable amount of information about “City Without Jews” is known because of its popularity. The film was distributed at least in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the US.
According to Wostry, media reports indicate that the film was initially a success and played in the biggest Viennese theaters, but that excitement around the film petered out relatively quickly.
“It was reported that Nazis stopped or censored some of the screenings. And we know that some screenings in 1926 in Germany were disturbed,” Wostry said.
The fate of “City Without Jews” author Hugo Bettauer is one reason why the book and film have not been forgotten. A Jew who converted to evangelical Christianity, the prolific and outspoken writer was lethally shot by a Nazi named Otto Rothstock. He died on March 26, 1925 at age 52.
“Bettauer called out the Viennese political leadership for creating an atmosphere of salonfähig, or social acceptability, when it came to anti-Semitism,” said Dr. Patricia Heberer-Rice, senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“He was trying to warn this leadership that if you remove a significant, flourishing and contributing community like the Jews, you are setting yourself up for failure,” she said.
According to Heberer-Rice, it’s significant that Bettauer set his novel in Vienna, and not Berlin.
“He chose the setting aptly, because it was indicative of the fierce anti-Semitism in Austria. Hitler and Eichmann were from Austria. So many of Eichmenn’s men were Austrian. Bettauer believed that what he depicted in ‘City Without Jews’ was a possibility in Vienna,” Heberer-Rice said.
Despite having made “City Without Jews,” the film’s mixed Jewish-Gentile cast and crew did not necessarily heed the film’s warning. According to Wostry, they all had different fates. Some emigrated, and some were killed during the war. The film’s director went on to join the Nazi party.
Those who made the film — let alone audiences — probably did not grasp just how prophetic it was.
“It must have seemed improbable, like a fairytale, for those without the hindsight we have now,” Heberer-Rice said.
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