Home Video Hovel: The City Without Jews, by David Bax
What’s most shocking about watching H.K. Breslauer’s The City Without Jews (out now on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley) as seen today, on the other side of the murder of six million European Jews, is how much of the film plays–quite intentionally–as comedy. Both Breslauer’s film and, from what I understand, Hugo Bettauer’s novel from which it is adapted are works of bitter satire. Sometimes Breslauer veers into a more broadly comic mode, such as the scene in which the camera wobbles around, imitating the exaggerated stumbling of a drunk character. But the haunting poster art, which provides the Blu-ray release its cover, makes it clear that these artists knew they were not exaggerating the seriousness of the threat of violent antisemitism. They would be proven right even sooner than we might imagine; Bettauer was assassinated by a Nazi the year after the film was released.
If it sounds to you like a satire about a fictional city-state banishing Jews requires a difficult balancing act, you’re not mistaken. Breslauer isn’t always successful in the transitions between satire and gut-churning stuff like families being torn apart and Jews being carted out of town on trains. Again, though, this likely played differently in 1924 when at least some of it was still hypothetical.
The City Without Jews is not only a frighteningly prescient warning about what could happen in an increasingly anti-Semitic Europe. It’s also a warning to those ant-Semites that following this path would not be a good idea. A lot of the consequences faced within the fictional setting of Utopia after enacting the anti-Jewish legislation take the form of global commerce and the stock market reacting negatively paired with sanctions from foreign governments. In other words, it can get a bit heady and hard to follow.
But a movie doesn’t have to be a lesson in international economics to work as agitprop. In the bigger picture, the argument that Utopia has become a pariah state is convincing (though the government still tries to find a way to blame the Jews). Often, Breslauer chooses propaganda over cinema; there are scads of text that seem overly worried that the viewer might not fully get the point of the visual parable. But, as an historical document, The City Without Jews is sobering and indelible.
It’s also remarkably well restored for a movie once thought lost. There are plenty of scratches, to be sure, but the image has been expertly stabilized and there’s a consistent picture quality throughout, better than one might expect from a film pieced together from various surviving sources.
Special features include another restored feature, 1923’s Victims of Hatred; a conversation about the legacy of the film with Dr. Nikolaus Wostry from the Filmarchiv Austria; the video for the crowdfunding campaign that made this restoration possible; images from a 2018 METRO Kinokulturhaus exhibit about the film; and a booklet with writing by Ernst Kieninger, Armin Loacker, Cynthia Walk, Anna Dobringer, Fumiko Tsuneishi and Margrit Frölich.