Hans Moser in “The City Without Jews” (Photo/Courtesy JFI)
Hans Moser in “The City Without Jews” (Photo/Courtesy JFI)

Restored 1924 Austrian satire eerily foreshadows Jewish fate

Dystopian films and political satires typically project “the worst thing that could happen” based on present social trends. Generally, the vision is just a warning.

But the 1924 Austrian movie “The City Without Jews” never presaged just how terrible things would get.

In this black-and-white silent film, a fictional European city blames the Jews for its problems and expels them all, only to welcome them back when society falls apart as a consequence. Directed by Hans Karl Breslauer, the film was based on the popular satirical novel by the Austrian journalist Hugo Bettauer published in 1922. It was intended as a send-up of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Austria, at a time when people largely dismissed the threat it might pose. That mind-set is what prompted Bettauer to write his “what-if” novel. He was assassinated by a fascist in 1925.

In 1933, nine years after the film’s release, the Austrian-born Hitler became chancellor of Germany, which annexed Austria in 1938. The expulsion of Austrian Jews followed a year later, and for most of Europe — especially its Jews — things only got much, much worse, as the world now knows.

Though the film was a success, it disappeared from theaters and archives under the Third Reich and was presumed lost — until a single, nearly intact copy was improbably discovered by a film collector in a Paris flea market in 2015. It has taken more than three years, including two years of painstaking digital restoration by the Austrian national film archive, to make this historic film available to the English-speaking public.

On Sunday, July 22, the resurrected “The City Without Jews” will have its international premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The screening at the Castro Theatre will feature an original score by local composer Sascha Jacobsen commissioned by the festival, performed by Jacobsen and his Musical Art Quintet.

How this unique film came to San Francisco for its debut has another local angle.

Several years ago, Jerry Garchik, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer, had been searching online for information about another film called “A Day Without a Mexican.” The 2004 satire, or “mockumentary,” had imagined the impact on California if all the Mexican immigrants in the state, legal and illegal, were suddenly to disappear. Whether the filmmaker, Sergio Arau, had heard of “The City Without Jews” is not known. But the internet being what it is, a link to the Austrian film popped up.

Garchik was intrigued. He was able to locate an old video copy in German, and he arranged a screening with Ingrid Eggers of San Francisco’s Berlin & Beyond film festival, through the Goethe-Institut. She told him the video had been shown in Vienna, and also at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, even though sections were missing or damaged.

“Jerry brought it to us, and we arranged to watch it, with some help on the German titles,” SFJFF program director Jay Rosenblatt said. “We thought it was very interesting, and also prescient, given what happened in the U.S. [with the 2016 presidential election], and also timely, given what is happening now.”

Rosenblatt contacted the Austrian government and said the festival would be interested in presenting the film if it could be produced in Blu-ray format with English subtitles. The Austrian Film Archive first had to raise the equivalent of $235,000 to restore and digitize it. The process was completed in March of this year, when Rosenblatt got an email saying that the film would be ready for a summer screening in San Francisco.

Garchik could not be more thrilled that his years of persistence have helped to bring about this event.

“I was afraid for two years that the Austrians would want to hide this story of the legacy of anti-Semitism in Vienna,” Garchik said, “and now with this right-wing element in their government… But the people at the Austrian Film Archive seem to have totally gotten it,” he said, “how relevant this film is to the times we’re in.”

The film, which will be co-presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, has all the hallmarks of the era: stagelike action scenes, hyperdramatic acting and dialogue condensed into subtitles, like latter-day tweets. But the synagogue scenes were filmed in Austrian synagogues, possibly with actual congregants, and Garchik believes that some of the scenes of street demonstrations may have been genuine as well.

Despite great turmoil, 1924 Vienna was a highly sophisticated society, one in which Jews were well represented in the professions, business and the arts — a fact that did not stop discontented Austrians from scapegoating Jewish citizens.

“ ‘City Without Jews’ has these wonderful before-and-after scenes, depicting how the culture decays once Jews are thrown out,” Garchik said. “I love the scene where the former mistresses of rich Jews can’t go shopping anymore, and the whole retail sector starts to go under.”

The live musical accompaniment will be an added bonus to the film screening.

“The music gives emotional meaning, connecting the context with what you are seeing,” said Jacobsen. The eclectic bassist and composer comes from a long line of musicians, including his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Russia who taught violin to Albert Einstein and was a contemporary of George Gershwin’s. When the SFJFF approached him about composing a score for “City Without Jews,” he knew “it was right up my alley.”

Jacobsen also recognized the value of bringing the film to contemporary audiences.

“This movie is so historically important, obviously, because it’s a ‘new’ film in that no one has seen it in 90 years or so. But also, because it was so prescient of what was to come,” he said, adding that he approached the composition of the score “with reverence, and respect.”

Like “A Day Without a Mexican,” the novel and film of “The City Without Jews” were intended to prove the point that you can’t expel targeted groups without consequences for the entire society. The irony is that history proved to be more cruel than a dystopian fantasy.

“The City Without Jews,” 7 p.m. Sunday, July 22 at the Castro Theatre.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.