The Washington Post

November 18, 1991, The Washington Post

The Horror Foretold

Restored 1924 Austrian film depicts Jewish deportation

Sandwiched between a homage to Gina Lollobrigida and the latest U.S. and European cinematic releases, hauntingly prophetic images of the 1930s Jewish deportations from Austria flickered across the screen at the recent Vienna International Film Festival.

The footage was salvaged not from a Nazi documentary but, more remarkably, from a newly rediscovered silent film made a full decade before the Holocaust began. The 1924 movie, “Die Stadt Ohne Juden” (“The City Without Jews”), is based on Hugo Bettauer’s satirical book of the same name, published in 1922 and subtitled “A Novel of the Day After Tomorrow.”

The book sold more than a quarter of a million copies and the original film played to packed houses in Austria and Germany.

Nazi activists were outraged at the tale’s “pro-Jewish” ending – a repentant populace finally realizes how much the Jews are needed and welcomes them back with open arms – and denounced Bettauer as a Jewish propagandist. According to a contemporary newspaper report, at least two Viennese showings of the original film were disrupted when young Nazis threw stink bombs in cinemas. Bettauer, a Jew who converted to Christianity at age 18 and provoked controversy as editor of a magazine advocating sexual liberation, was murdered in 1925 by a Viennese dental technician who was a member of the storm troopers.

Not surprisingly, all copies of the film vanished after the 1938 Anschluss, the forced union of Austria with Hitler’s Germany. Long believed irretrievably lost, a tattered print was unearthed a few months ago in an Amsterdam film archive. The restored film, screened to accompaniment by a pianist from the Vienna conservatory, was a key feature at the Vienna festival and is due to be shown on Austrian national television next month.

When “The City Without Jews” was first released, Vienna was home to more than 175,000 Jews. Today there are about 6,000. Strong antisemitic sentiments remain in Austria, according to results of a Gallup poll released Oct. 24. Nearly one in five of those questioned still believe the country would be better off with no Jews, although greater tolerance was found among younger and better-educated Austrians. (Five thousand people demonstrated against antisemitism and xenophobia after the poll results were issued.)

Walter Fritz, a cinema historian with the Austrian Film Archive, which oversaw the restoration, considers the film a rare document of its time. In contrast to most Austrian movies of the ’20s, it dealt with contemporary political issues rather than providing escapist entertainment.

Most eerily, the 70-minute film contains sequences showing the traumatic departure of Jews from Vienna in trains, presaging the Nazi deportations. “It is ghastly for me that people already thought about this in 1924,” said Leon Zelman, a Jewish community leader and survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Directed by Hans Karl Breslauer, the movie stars Hans Moser and features two well-known Jewish actors of the period, Gisela Werbezirk and Armin Berg, in smaller roles. Although the book is set in Vienna, the film takes place in the mythical capital of the “Republic of Utopia.” Seeking to assuage anxieties over spiraling inflation, the chancellor claims that the Jews control the banks, jam the coffeehouses and better restaurants, and generally lead lives of inordinate luxury. Boorish politicians appear, agitating for the Jews’ removal, as crowds rally in support of expulsion outside the legislature.

The Jews are heartbroken and desperate at the news that they must leave their homeland. The fictional persecution (which became reality under the Nuremberg laws adopted in 1935) extended to baptized Jews and the children of intermarried couples. After they are deported, their homes and businesses are taken over by gentiles. But without the Jews, the once-glittering capital becomes a drab, provincial village. Its opera and theaters are empty, and sartorial elegance gives way to drab Alpine attire as economic stagnation sets in.

Both book and film conclude with the mayor greeting the first deportee to return to Vienna with the words, “My beloved Jew!” In 1988, the president of Vienna’s present-day Jewish community, Paul Grosz, stood next to current Mayor Helmut Zilk and sorrowfully cited the novel’s final lines at a city hall ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss.

While Nazis regarded the novel as pro-Jewish, both it and the film are tainted by the antisemitism of the 1920s. Many of the characters are caricatures. The Viennese Jews are easily able to find refuge abroad, and one who moves to London is depicted as a corpulent, cigar-smoking financier, his fingers encased in gaudy rings. He sits comfortably in an easy chair, conducting business affairs of great magnitude. The scene switches to “Zion,” where another Jew contentedly whiles away his time playing cards and munching matzo among amiable Arabs.

The Vienna Film Archive and Jewish community leader Zelman believe screenings of the rediscovered film will help contribute to a greater understanding of the climate that permitted fiction’s realization. Says Zelman, “It represents a necessary confrontation with the period for young people, who did not experience all this and who live in Vienna in a great vacuum in terms of contemporary history.”