Brow Beat

It Was Lost for Decades, but This Warning About Anti-Semitism Has Reappeared at Just the Right Moment

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

A still image from The City Without Jews.
The City Without Jews. Austrian Film Archive

For a story about the forced expulsion of an entire ethnic group, Hans Karl Breslauer and Ida Jenbach’s The City Without Jews is oddly good-natured. Adapted from Hugo Bettauer’s novel, the 1924 satire is not dissimilar from other light silent films of the era. The scenario was topical, but intended as ludicrous, a “be-careful-what-you-wish-for” fable whose moral argues for tolerance, if of a somewhat backhanded kind.

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.

The City Without Jews was a successful book, as was most of Bettauer’s output at the time. A novelist and newspaperman, Bettauer was known for capturing Vienna’s zeitgeist and getting it onto paper quickly. (The City Without Jews was one of five books he published in 1922.) The film wasn’t as big of a sensation, with critics or with audiences, but it was still a success, selling out enormous theaters in Vienna. In Berlin and elsewhere, it caused something of a stir, prompting hisses, derisive laughter, and demands for ticket refunds. In suburban Wiener Neustadt, a group of early Nazis threw stink bombs to disrupt a screening. (It played in New York City in 1928 but got only a fleeting mention in the New York Times.)

The film was thought lost for decades, until an incomplete version was found in an Amsterdam archive in 1991. In 2016, a collector discovered a complete copy at a Paris flea market. With the aid of crowdsourcing, the Austrian Film Archive debuted a clean, full version last year. It continues to tour at festivals, cinematheques, and museums worldwide, and will screen on Thursday with musical accompaniment at the Leo Baeck Institute, one of the five principal organizations that form, like Voltron, the Center for Jewish History in New York.

“I hate to bring up the old cliché of the frog in slowly boiling water not realizing it’s in danger, but, well, I’ll bring it up anyway, because it’s apt,” Leo Baeck’s executive director William Weitzer says. Looking at the speed with which institutionalized anti-Semitism grew from a speculative topic into violent law is something he cautions “we can’t be inured from.” He is eager to showcase the film with an eye toward the striking, recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe; the spike in Jewish emigration, particularly in France; and the success of far-right parties around the world. A reflection of Trumpist repercussions in the United States was less of an inspiration—“though maybe give it enough time,” he darkly jokes.

In the movie, the city of Utopia is in economic disarray. Its people are poor and angry. Some blame the Jews. (So far, none of this is fiction except for the name of the city; the novel was explicitly set in Vienna and featured characters who were clear stand-ins for politicians of the day.) Some politicians think kicking the Jews out of town will solve all their problems. There are three councilors, one of whom is virulently anti-Semitic, even though his daughter is married to Jew. Another is more lenient. (His daughter is dating a Jew, too.) A third has anti-Semitism perpetually on the brain. At the end of the movie, he falls into a delusional haze and sees Jewish stars floating around his head. The doctors declare him a Zionist. (This is intended as comedy.)

The chancellor is convinced to pass an edict. The archdiocese mutters something about us all being flesh and blood but doesn’t push back too hard. The Jews must go (unless they are second-generation half-Jews), but they are allowed to bring their fortunes with them. (Naturally they’ll have to pay a heavy tax, which was very much the case for Jews who tried to leave Vienna later.) The Jews exit, mostly by train, in an eerily bloodless foreshadowing of Holocaust cinema to come. Then Utopia falls further apart. The banks are a mess, no other nations will trade with them, their theaters have turned bland, women are buying frumpy dresses, and even the prostitutes in the beer hall cry that they “have nothing without my Cohn!”

We check in with some of the Jews we’ve met (one comic relief character is having a rough time fitting in in Palestine) and the lost boyfriend returns with a Guy Incognito–esque mustache, pretending to be French. With Utopia’s back against the wall, the chancellor begrudgingly lets the Jews return.

The message is positive but still worrying. Jews shuttle back and forth, less like people and more like an idea. “The film, looked at now, has a bit of an extreme philo-Semitism that can then lead to anti-Semitism,” Leo Baeck’s Weitzer comments. He’s hit upon something key. The City Without Jews renounces any top-down edict to expel Jews. But not really because it is immoral; mostly because Jews are good with money.

If one wants to get even more sinister, one could interpret the film as saying that one city alone can’t drive out its Jews. For this solution to be final, all of Europe must unite on the idea and become Judenrein. The City Without Jews never became one, but this pro-tolerance work, with just a little bit of tweaking, could have mutated into an inadvertent anti-Semitic tract.

Noah Isenberg, who wrote the catalog essay on The City Without Jews for the Austrian Film Archives and will be presenting it at the Leo Baeck Institute, points out that the topics of passing, intermarriage, and who gets dubbed an outsider are central to the story, and enhanced in the film version. (Much of the background for this piece was gleaned from a manuscript of Isenberg’s catalog essay A Cinematic Salvo From Interwar Austria: Hans Karl Breslauer’s Die Stadt Ohne Juden [The City Without Jews, 1924] soon to be published in German by the Austrian Film Archive.) Although Bettauer was born Jewish and converted at the age of 18, Isenberg warns not to read too much into Bettauer’s change of faith. “It was very much the norm” he says. “There is no contemporary analogy. He was just as Jewish after his conversion; this was just a ticket into European culture.”

The reemergence of the film from the fog of history has extra resonance considering the fate of its key creators. Less than a year after the film’s release, in March 1925, a Nazi named Otto Rothstock shot and killed Hugo Bettauer. It was the first political murder by a Nazi in Austria. Rothstock’s defense was that he was trying to protect German culture from a degenerate Jewish influence. He was found guilty but sent to a mental asylum. He was released a year later and lived until at least 1977, when he gave an unrepentant interview to Austria’s ORF broadcasting company.

Hans Karl Breslauer left the film industry and began writing light newspaper columns under a pen name, eventually joining the Nazi Party. After the war, he was an unsuccessful fiction writer. Noah Isenberg says there isn’t enough evidence to suggest whether Breslauer, who worked closely with Jews his whole career, was a true believer or, like Bettauer years earlier, this was a conversion merely to “stay afloat.”

Less lucky was the film’s co-screenwriter Ida Jenbach, a Jew, who was deported to the Minsk ghetto. Her time and place of death after the deportation remain unknown.

“Bettauer tells an anecdote that he was inspired to write the book by seeing placards littering Vienna, decrying miscegenation, in 1920,” Isenberg says. “There were these folkish, nationalist political campaigns about Jews defiling gentile women,” Isenberg tells me. (It’s worth noting that the two inter-religious relationships in the film are between Jewish men and non-Jewish women.) “It’s a crazy parallel to the rhetoric of miscegenation today. This film is not the stuff of sci-fi. The timeliness has not gone away, regrettably.”