Monday December 12, 2016

Newly restored Austrian film predicted the rise of Nazism

A still from the 1924 film, "The City Without Jews".

A still from the 1924 film, "The City Without Jews". (Film Archiv Austria)

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A film that predicted the rise of Nazism has been rediscovered and is being re-released in Austria. The 1924 film called "The City Without Jews" imagined what a fictional version the Austrian capital would be like if it expelled its Jewish citizens.

"'The City Without Jews' is without any doubt the most important Austrian silent [film]." - Nikolaus Wostry

A version of the film had been found in 1991, but had been significantly edited and censored. This new copy, found in flea market in Paris, contains scenes missing from that earlier version.

"The City Without Jews" is based on a dystopian novel of the same name, written by Jewish publisher Hugo Bettauer.

The film's release follows a successful crowdsourcing campaign by the Austrian Film Archive.

Part of that funding came from an anonymous American-Jewish organization following the election of Donald Trump.

Nikolaus Wostry is the director of collections for the Austrian Film Archive. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off.


Stills from the 1924 film "The City Without Jews"

Stills from the 1924 film "The City Without Jews". (Film Archiv Austria)

Nikolaus Wostry: In general, 90% of the silent film period are lost. So it's very rare that you find a lost film, and it hardly happens in life that you find a film that you're really yearning for.

"City Without Jews" is without any doubt the most important Austrian silent film, and that we would get another source was quite unexpected.

Carol Off: The movie is set in a fictional, German speaking city, called 'Utopia'. Tell us a little about the story of the film.

NW: The film is obviously located in Vienna with its very heavy anti-Semitism. It's a fiction of what would happen if our Jewish population would be expelled, if people would erect walls, and throw them out.

It shows that what would really happen, is that in the end, would we be very glad to have them back. It was always the Jews that were blamed for every bad economic situation. In the end it is seen that the Jewish population have a very rich cultural and economic life.

CO: You say that parts of the film went missing after it was first released, and that you've been able to recover them now. What were the parts that were missing?

NW: The film was heavily mutilated to make it less real and less brutal in its content. There were sequences taken away that shows this program, this direct persecution of totally innocent people.

Still image from the 1924 film "The City Without Jews"

Still image from the 1924 film "The City Without Jews" (Film Archiv Austria)

In the new version we found there are a lot of sequences depicting the Jewish way of life in Vienna, giving us very rare and precious insight. It's fiction but has a sort of documentary quality.

CO: When the film was first released, how difficult was it to imagine what would happen to the Jews starting in the 1930s?

NW: It was very clear that these anti-Semitic feelings were very strong. What the film depicts is that these feelings are very emotional, that these feelings are not really bound to reason or to reality.  

"...a lot of sequences were taken away because, in their realism and their realistic approach, people couldn't believe that such a thing could become real."    - Nikolaus Wostry

At that time nobody, not even the Nazis, would have know that it would lead to these incredible atrocities. But the Austrian Nazis were totally ready for brutal force, for killing, for murder. But what no one could really believe before it actually happened was the systematic, industrial killing, everyday for years.    

CO: Do you see parallels between that time in 1924 and our own age?

AUSTRIA-PROTEST/

Protesters demonstrate against Austrian Freedom Party's (FPOe) Akademikerball ball in Vienna, Austria. The placards read "Nazis out of the parliament". (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)

NW: Yes, especially nowadays with the so-called "refugee problem". It's not a problem. It's simply a matter of attitude.

There are people now coming from Syria, from countries where they are really having grave difficulties, and Europe is not really welcoming them. It is very comparable to the situation during the First World War and shortly afterwards.

"[Vienna] was in a way the city of political anti-Semitism, where Hitler learned his anti-semitism.  So we have a very heavy historical debt." - Nikolaus Wostry

A lot of refugees came to Vienna and came to the inner part of Austria. They were Austrian citizens and a lot of them were of Jewish background, and they faced quite an enormous hesitation to help, quite a hatred even.

Austrians tried eagerly to expel these people who had come as refugees, who were forced to come as refugees. They denied them their citizenship and tried to exclude them completely from society.

So I really see the parallels.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more on this story listen to our full interview with Nikolaus Wostry.