The City Without Jews (A 1924, d: Hans Karl Breslauer, b: Ida Jenbach); Hugo-Bettauer-Platz, Vienna; September 12, 2018; 6.30 p.m.
Vienna, March 10, 1925. Author, screenwriter, and journalist Hugo Bettauer was shot down in his editorial office, Lange Gasse 5–7, by the 21-year-old nationalist Otto Rothstock. Two weeks later, Bettauer died of his wounds at the hospital. The murder ended a malicious campaign against Bettauer, whose liberal-minded, yet controversial works took an unequivocal stand for sexual openness and liberation, condemning, among others, the punishment of abortion. Several of his works have been adapted for film, among them Joyless Street [orig.: Die freudlose Gasse, 1924] and The City Without Jews [orig.: Die Stadt ohne Juden, 1922]. The film version of Joyless Street was directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, starring Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo, and Werner Krauß, and premiered at the Berlin Mozartsaal in 1925, two months after the murder of the novel’s author. One year earlier, Hans Karl Breslauer’s adaptation of The City Without Jews premiered at the Vienna Haydn-Kino, followed by Hindenburg, Kino Handl, Opern-Kino, and Zirkus Busch-Kino. Said to be an “involuntarily prophetic historical film document”, The City Without Jews criticizes by parodying anti-Semitism: Due to the desperate financial situation, a large part of the people of Utopia (in the novel: Vienna) are dissatisfied and seditious. Following the masses, the chancellor announces a law forcing all Jewish citizens to emigrate by December 25. The Christians’ initial enthusiasm soon turns into a new dissatisfaction, as the cultural life impoverishes and the economy declines again. Having returned from exile with forged papers, Leo Strakosch starts a poster campaign by the fictitious “Confederation of the True Christians” demanding the return of the Jews for the sake of Utopia. People start realizing that they could actually benefit from the Jewish economic expertise. In the end, the law is taken back and the Jews are warmly welcomed by the Mayor of Utopia, Laberl, while the anti-Semitic councilor Bernart finds himself arrested in an asymmetric, Caligarian cell of a psychiatry, being pursued by the Star of David.
Despite crowded cinemas, the film did not keep up with the tremendous success of Bettauer’s sharp-witted novel. Nevertheless, it does represent an important historical document in many ways: Not only did the film provide grounds for riots at the movie theaters, thus reflecting the anti-Semitic reality of the early 1920s; an incomplete copy found at today’s EYE Film Instituut Nederland in 1991 and restored on behalf of the Austrian Film Archive is supposed to have been shown at the last screening, which took place at the Amsterdam Circus Carré in 1933 as a symbol against Nazism. In 2015, new film material was found at a flea market in Paris. Thanks to Austria’s most successful cultural crowd-funding campaign—which, as Nikolaus Wostry has emphasized, can be seen as a worldwide engagement against the present political swing to the right—, the Austrian Film Archive was able to restore the Parisian copy. This 2018 version contains scenes that demonstrate both the torment and deportation of the Jewish citizens. Its first performance took place on March 21, 2018, at the Metro Kinokulturhaus in Vienna; the release of the DVD will follow this November.
As part of the Cinema of Places [Kino der Orte] series, the expanded version of The City Without Jews is currently shown at various Viennese locations, which are directly linked to the Jewish culture of the city or to the history of the film. Each of the screenings is accompanied by different musicians. The attended screening took place at the Hugo-Bettauer-Platz, named after the novel’s author in 2009, only 130 meters away from Bettauer’s editorial office. The program started with a Klezmer concert by Roman Grinberg, followed by a welcome by Veronika Mickel-Göttfert (district commissioner of Josefstadt) and an introduction to the film by Nikolaus Wostry (head of collections of the Austrian Film Archive). Pianist Gerhard Gruber, Vienna’s local hero of silent film performance, accompanied the screening. Together with Peter Rosmanith (percussion) and Adula Ibn Quadr (violin), he had been responsible for the musical arrangement of the earlier DVD version. His confident musical improvisation included a pinpoint illustration of the action, showing that he was quite familiar with the film. However, as he told me afterward, Gruber had to adjust to the higher playing speed of the 2018 version, which, at times, created a grotesque effect, thus emphasizing the film’s satirical style. The proficient pianist avoided an overdose of “Mickey Mousing”, focusing, instead, on the general mood. Popular tunes, such as “O, du lieber Augustin” characterizing the drunken Councilor Bernart or the diegetic “Für Elise” that Lotte is (or might be) playing at the piano after having told her father that she is in love with a Parisian painter, were skillfully integrated into the musical illustration. The audience thanked both Gruber and the Austrian Film Archive with an enthusiastic applause.
Upcoming performances will take place at the Jewish Museum Vienna (September 17, 2018); the Nordwestbahnhof (September 20, 2018) with live music by Ritornell; the Office of the Austrian Federal President (October 15, 2018) and the Wiener Urania (October 17, 2018) with live music by Gerhard Gruber, Peter Rosmanith, and Adula Ibn Quadr; the Wiener Konzerthaus (November 7, 2018) with Ensemble PHACE performing the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s original soundtrack; and the Theater Akzent (November 18, 2018) with live music by Gerhard Gruber. Screenings outside of Vienna include Graz (September 19, 2018) with live music by Gerhard Gruber; Linz (October 11, 2018) with live music by Ritornell; and Hohenems (October 17, 2018) with live music performed by jazz pianist Peter Madsen.