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Saturday Night Cinema: The City Without Jews (1924)

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic was only recently discovered. It is the 1924 German Expressionist film Die Stadt Ohne Juden (The City Without Jews). The author was murdered by a Nazi a year later, in 1925.

Just 14 years later the Nuremberg Laws were passed in Austria and the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration was established in Vienna, with Adolf Eichmann at its head. By 1942, there were only 800 Viennese Jews left in hiding, down from more than 200,000 when Bettauer wrote his book 20 years earlier. Once home to Freud, Schnitzler, and Schönberg, Vienna really had become a city without Jews. (UCLA Film and Television Archive)

With the spike in antisemitism both here here and abroad, it is a timely selection. It was lost for decades, but this warning about Jew-hatred is a urgent now as it was then.

Hugo Bettauer, who had become an American citizen in the late 1890s, worked as a journalist in Vienna during World War I, and in 1920 started writing essentially potboiler novels, publishing City Without Jews in 1922 and The Joyless Street in 1924. While the first novel dealt with anti-Semitism satirically, becoming a best-seller despite its negligible literary quality, the latter discussed the impoverishment of the middle classes, due to runaway inflation. Both film versions saw the root of social problems in the inequities of the class system. Not surprisingly, Alfred Rosenberg, chief ideologue for the Nazis in Berlin, viciously attacked Bettauer as a purveyor of pornography. In March 1925, Bettauer was gunned down in the street by a young Nazi.

The City Without Jews imagined a purge years before the Third Reich.

“In many places the film follows the original book almost word for word, which makes the Utopian ending even more obviously an expression of appeasement. At the end the surprised audience learns that the entire dramatic action only took place in a dream, and thus never really happened. The on-screen happy ending, dictated by compromise, not only negates the meaning of Bettauer’s book but also the very real antisemitism that it reflects. Instead it documents a by no means unthinkable and in no way dreamlike reality […] This surprising turn of the plot, deviating totally from the literary original, which simplifies the action as the content of a dream, cannot merely be regarded as a simple dramatic exigency, but as a prime example of the Austrian soul’s ability to repress. This naïve and perhaps crude experiment from 1924 can be taken as a forerunner of what was generally practised after World War II in the country ohne Eigenschaften

Ballhausen, Thomas; Krenn, Günter (September 2006). “(Alb)Traumhaft: Die Stadt ohne Juden” (PDF). Medienimpulse. 57: 35–39. Retrieved 19 January 2008. (thanks to Charles F)

“In many places the film follows the original book almost word for word, which makes the Utopian ending even more obviously an expression of appeasement. At the end the surprised audience learns that the entire dramatic action only took place in a dream, and thus never really happened. The on-screen happy ending, dictated by compromise, not only negates the meaning of Bettauer’s book but also the very real antisemitism that it reflects. Instead it documents a by no means unthinkable and in no way dreamlike reality […] This surprising turn of the plot, deviating totally from the literary original, which simplifies the action as the content of a dream, cannot merely be regarded as a simple dramatic exigency, but as a prime example of the Austrian soul’s ability to repress. This naïve and perhaps crude experiment from 1924 can be taken as a forerunner of what was generally practised after World War II in the country ohne Eigenschaften”[9](Thomas Ballhausen, Günter Krenn, 2006).[1]

Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) is a 1924 Austrian Expressionist film by H. K. Breslauer, based on the book of the same title by Hugo Bettauer. The film is one of the few surviving Expressionist films from Austria and has therefore been well researched.

In his novel, published in 1922, Hugo Bettauer succeeded in creating a relatively accurate allegorical vision of the near future, although the book was intended as entertainment and as a satirical response to the primitive antisemitism of the 1920s. It immediately became Bettauer’s most popular work: it was translated into several languages, and sold over a quarter of a million copies. Shortly after the premiere of the film Hugo Bettauer was murdered by Otto Rothstock, a former member of the Nazi Party, who was lionized by the antisemitic Austrian masses and was released from jail shortly after his conviction for murder. (Internet Archive)

 

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