Anti-Semitism was flourishing in Austria in 1924 when the filmmaker Hans Karl Breslauer first screened The City Without Jews, a prescient silent film about a “legendary republic of Utopia” that collapses when those in power blame economic woes and rampant disease on its Jewish population. Jews are attacked, their businesses taken over, and finally deported from Utopia, sent away on packed trains.
Based on a 1922 satirical novel of the same name, the film’s ending is less prescient: The leaders and citizens of the city (the novel is set in a version of contemporaneous Vienna) realize that they need the Jewish population to rescue Utopia from its economic and cultural collapse, and Mayor Karl Laberl—an unsubtle reference to Vienna’s notoriously anti-Semitic Mayor Karl Lueger—embraces the first Jews to return from exile.
That ending was long missing and the only available copy of the film was fragmentary. But last year, a previously undiscovered copy of the film was found at a flea market in Paris and the flammable and fragile nitrate negative was transferred to Film Archive Austria (FAA) which raised $79,500 through crowd-funding to restore the new footage, which contains the complete final sequence and scenes depicting more virulent anti-Semitism in Vienna than the existing version.
The film disappeared from circulation after the Nazis came to power in 1933 (they would occupy Austria in 1938) and wouldn’t be seen publicly again until 1991, when Filmarchiv Austria (FAA) restored its only print of the film and screened it at the Vienna Film Festival that year. Without the film’s important final scene.
When the film was released, the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler was at the beginning of his political career—and serving time in prison after his Nazi Party failed to overthrow the German government during their ill-fated “Beer Hall Putsch.” Arrested for treason and sentenced to five years in Landsberg jail, he used the time to write Mein Kampf, his notorious political manifesto filled with paeans to Lueger and the anti-Semitic milieu of fin-de-siecle Vienna.
Indeed, Austria had seen a series of anti-Semitic political parties and movements by the time Bettauer wrote The City Without Jews in 1922. Bettauer, a Jew who converted to Christianity at age 18, was murdered by an anti-Semite in 1925, a year after the film adaptation of his novel first screened in Vienna. (The City Without Jews director Hans Karl Breslauer never made another film—and joined the Nazi Party in 1940). Bettauer reportedly disapproved of the film’s setting in an imaginary “Utopia” and of its ending, which was slightly rosier than the novel’s ending.
Now that the lost footage of Bettauer’s film has been recovered, FAA is scrambling to rescue the delicate, nearly century-old print from disintegration. The restoration process is costly but well worth the investment, FAA’s Nicholas Wostry told the AFP, because it provides “an insight into the Jewish community in Vienna” during the 1920s.
But despite the murderous Austrian strain of anti-Semitism that would ultimately claim Bettauer’s life, few saw the film as prophetic. Randall Bytwerk, an historian and curator of the online German Propaganda Archive, said that despite the long tradition of anti-Semitism in the region, the idea of a wholesale genocide of Europe’s Jewish population existed mostly in the domain of fiction and in the feverdreams of fringe political parties. (In the early 1920s, Austria was home to more than 200,000 Jews; today, that number is down to 10,000).
“Part of the appeal of a film like The City Without Jews is that at least someone was disgusted enough about anti-Semitism to make a film about it,” Bytwerk told The Daily Beast.
“On the one hand the premise of the film is not so surprising, but on the other hand it’s shocking that someone could imagine something like this happening,” said Deborah Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of Denying the Holocaust.
“Jews had learned to live with anti-Semitism and many of them lived quite well,” she added. “But it was present to such a degree that someone like Bettauer wrote a novel about it. Still, he was looking at something from a very radical perspective. No one imagined [the Holocaust] was possible, and I think it would be regrettable if a film like this were used as validation that Jews should have foreseen a Holocaust.”
Here in the U.S., the National Center for Jewish Film—the largest archival collection outside of Israel—is also currently working on four major film restoration projects, including another 1924 film that addresses anti-Semitism in Austria called Yizkor and East and West, a 1923 comedy shot in Vienna starring American actress Molly Picon.
“The excitement of opening an unmarked can and discovering a long lost film is like discovering a bag of gold in one’s backyard,” the center wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast, noting that they, too, are “racing against time to preserve and restore” films like Yizkor and East and West. “Not every one turns out to be a gem but every unique reel of film adds something of value to the historical record,” they wrote.
With its chilling storyline about the mass deportation of Jews from Vienna, imagined fully 15 years before the Nazis embarked on the same project, The City Without Jews is indeed of significant value to the historical record.
But FAA managing director Nicholas Wostry sees a present-day resonance with the film, in a continent gripped by a migration crisis and in a country on the verge of electing its first far-right head-of-state since the World War II.
“We have to save it and make it available to the public,” he said, “not just for its historic value but also for its current message against the walls we are building and the exclusion of people.”