‘City without Jews’ revisited

Hugo Bettauer’s fully restored 1924 silent film will be screened with live soundtrack in Tel Aviv.

(photo credit: HARALD HOFFMAN)
It is said that Jesus did not have too much success in spreading his word, and performing miracles, on his home patch of Nazareth. In the Book of Mark, the person who was to become the central figure of Christianity noted: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”
The same might be said of a certain Hugo Bettauer. If you haven’t heard of the latter gent, you are probably in good widespread company. Bettauer was a Jewish-born Austrian writer whose best-known tome was Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) which, in 1924 was turned into a silent movie of the same name by Austrian scriptwriter and director H.K. Breslauer.
Some of the movie reels went missing for a long time, and were discovered, in a poor state of repair, in a flea market in Paris in 2015. The footage was carefully digitally restored, following a crowdfunding campaign, and, in the last few months, the full version of the film has been shown in various major cities, together with live performances of a new soundtrack written by Olga Neuwirth. The next concert-screening takes place here, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, on Saturday evening (8:30 p.m.), January 5, with Ilan Volkov conducting the Israel Contemporary Players.
I attended a performance-screening of the works at the Vienna Konzerthaus in November a couple of days before the opening of The House of Austrian History, which has been described as “the first museum in Austria to focus on contemporary history.” The new display venue is housed within the Austrian National Library, located on Heldenplatz, where, on March 15, 1938, Hitler formally announced the annexation of Austria to Germany – the Anschluss.
Die Stadt ohne Juden does not make for a fun entertaining evening. Bettauer’s 1922 bare-knuckled satirical novel is set in a contemporary Vienna still very much licking its wounds following defeat in World War I and the ensuing collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With poverty raging and unemployment soaring, distraught Austrian civilians and populist politicians look for a scapegoat and, not for the first – or last – time in history, the Jews are targeted. The Austrian chancellor, although initially supportive of the Jews, eventually realizes it is very much worth his while to accede to public demand, and Vienna’s 200,000 Jews are duly expelled. The chillingly prophetic scene in the movie shows the Jews being shipped eastward by freight trains.
It is a shockingly prescient work by Bettauer, who was murdered by a young Nazi sympathizer called Otto Rothstock in 1925.
Tellingly, Rothstock was tried and, although found guilty, the judge accepted the defending advocate’s claim that the accused was insane, and Rothstock was released from a psychiatric institution less than two years later. He was an unrepentant Nazi and, in a 1977 interview on the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, he reportedly boasted about Bettauer’s “extinction.”
The book met with a mixed reception. While it sold an impressive 250,000 copies in its first year, it won Bettauer admirers and plenty of enemies. The film closes with the welcome return of the Jews to Vienna, following the city’s financial and cultural collapse. All’s well that ends well – or is it?
NEUWIRTH BELIEVES that, sadly, the book and film are just as relevant today as they were almost a century ago, and certainly eight decades back. In an interview she gave to The Guardian, shortly before a screening of Die Stadt ohne Juden at the Barbican Center in London last November, the 50-year-old Jewish Austrian composer simply stated that “antisemitism is in the DNA of Austrians,” noting that current racism takes in “hatred for refugees.” She also expressed some concern about how the screening-concert would be taken by the British audience.
I was not in London but, judging, by the response of the patrons at the Konzerthaus, Neuwirth need not have lost any sleep over it.
The place was packed to the gilded rafters and, at the end, she was coaxed back onto the stage repeatedly by the rapturous protracted applause. One can only surmise whether that was prompted by the excellence of the sonic offering together with the story line of the restored visual work, or a wish to express regret over Austria’s willing contribution to the Nazi death machine.
Regardless of the appreciation catalyst, Neuwirth was buoyed by the reaction.
“It was very touching for me that it was an incredible mix of audience, from young and old, of survivors of the Shoa hand in hand with young people who fight for a peaceful future together,” she says, although tempering her enthusiasm with sober understanding of the state of the political playing field, and noting that she may have been preaching to the converted. “[This is] also, maybe, because at this evening the ‘other’ Austria was in the big hall which understands, anyway, that we have to fight, speak out and not accept hate-fueled language anymore for means of personal ego and power of politicians – like shown in the film – racism, chauvinism, populism and antisemitism.”
Being the daughter of a Jewish couple who, somehow, managed to survive the Holocaust made her work, and the performances of her score together with the film, all the more evocative for her, and not a little challenging. She says she had to steel herself, and maintain her professional poise throughout. “I had to try to put aside my deep sadness and suppress my rage and, therefore, my first step was to analyze the film, frame by frame, to find some distance and calm down my fury, also due to rising racist populism all over the world. It’s so dangerous.”
The project was spawned by the Parisian market stall discovery, and by a commission from the aforementioned prestigious Viennese concert facility. “I was asked to do so by Konzerthaus Wien and the head of Viennale – aka Vienna International Film Festival – Hans Hurch, when new and missing footage was discovered at a flea market in Paris and given to the Film Archive Austria some years ago.” The composer had been familiar with the source text for a long time. “As I know Hugo Bettauer’s bitter satire of antisemitism since I was 17, and saw the unrestored film in 1991.”
But this was clearly not going to be just another artistic undertaking for Neuwirth. “I was of course interested to be involved, but it was very hard for me because it is a huge responsibility, and I didn’t want to just stick to the time of the 1920s but to make transparent the tradition and the aftermath till nowadays.”
Besides providing audiences in Tel Aviv and elsewhere with a compelling visual and aural experience, Neuwirth hopes the work helps to convey the idea that fascism and racism can erupt at any given moment, anywhere.
“Everything, even small, helps, if it’s not already too late, as constant toxic language of politicians changes the brains of people,” she posits. “As an artist, my only possibility is to pull away the curtain of belittlement of social-political problems to make aware, with an honest voice, and to hope that speaking out and referring to problems leads society forward and keeps democracies stable to live together – yes together – in peace!”
For tickets and further information: *6876 and https://www.cinema.co.il/en/