Tonight, if you’re not at Northside, Anthology Film Archives screens the very rare Austrian-Expressionist silent film The City Without Jews.
A cultural fossil that suggests a breed of sardonic sauropod where we had only supposed there were bacterium, H.K. Breslauer’s The City Without Jews (1924) is, simply put, a satirical dystopia railing against anti-Semitism that just happens to prophesize the rise of European national socialism a few years later. Austrian-made, so therefore even odder (Vienna barely had a film industry in the silent era, and adept Austrians, like Lang and Pabst, would emigrate to Germany), this ideological whatzit posits a Mitteleuropan Republic of Utopia where rising economic woes encourages the populace and politicians to expel the Jewish population. Thereafter, the society (particularly its banking and theaters) begins to collapse, thereby allowing the movie to cut itself with the double-bladed action of skewering bigotry and unintentionally agreeing with its tenets. The Rorschach effect is dizzying—images of marching refugees are mated with anti-goyische farce, and you can’t help but suspect that however well-intentioned the scenario represents a secret cultural wish. Then, we get to sunny, peaceful Zion. A relatively artless film that repeats its own footage liberally, Breslauer’s movie has the ironic air of an I.B. Singer parable. But dread was in the air—the film outraged the National Socialists, and Hugo Bettauer, the prolific Jewish author of the bestselling novel and screenplay, was murdered by a young Nazi a year after the film’s premiere. His co-scenarist, Ida Jenbach, died in a concentration camp. Quite probably an absolutely unique blip in film history, it’s a righteous but unassuming movie that scans now like a Nostradamus-ian prevision made to seem almost harmless by the magnitude of history.