The Sunday Intertitle: Exodus, the dress rehearsal

THE CITY WITHOUT JEWS (DIE STADT OHNE JUDEN, 1924) is a creepy historical oddity — rather overrated for its so-called “expressionism,” but it’s one of very few Austrian films influenced by German expressionism at all, apparently. What IS striking about it is its plot, which deals with a mythical city, Utopia, which decides to get rid of all its Jews. Just ship them off somewhere, you understand. Somewhere nice, probably.

“We are being kicked out like dogs,” laments one distinguished-looking chap (there are a lot of obvious steretyped Jewish characters, but also some who depart from the cartoon format) — the line recalls Kafka, and also reminds me of Welles’ objection that The Trial was a pre-Holocaust fantasia, bits of which needed to be adjusted out of sensitivity to later 20th Century events. Which I think may be a misreading of Kafka, but BOY does it apply to H.K. Breslauer’s film.

This is a well-meaning movie, but a confused and timid one, and history overtook it cruelly. The satirical point is that life in the de-Jewed Utopia is so dull, with no worthwhile arts, music, theatre or cafes, only beer halls selling sausages, that the gentiles lament their mistake and conspire to bring the Jews back, which they contrive to do by getting the leading anti-semitic politician drunk — causing the set to rock back and forth like a ship at sea, the film’s first expressionist effect — and then committing him to a Caligari-esque insane asylum (again recalling Welles:  “In a people’s world the incurable racist has no rights. He must be deprived of influence in a people’s government. He must be segregated as he himself would segregate the colored and Semitic peoples—as we now segregate the leprous and the insane.” [Welles’ remarks about segregating the insane are now dated in turn, but we know what he means: treat the racist like the insane were treated]).

This is where the film gets expressionistic, but also where it cops out, in a very Caligariesque way, revealing the story as the anti-semite’s fantasy. This doesn’t quite reverse the film’s terms the way the madman’s dream ending of CALIGARI betrays Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz’s subversive vision, but it does muddy the waters and adds further frivolity to the mix. It didn’t succeed in making the film harmless: screenings were still disrupted by Nazis throwing stink bombs. The film was financially successful, though, despite the author of the original novel disassociating himself from it on account of the ending.

Author Hugo Bettauer was shot dead by Otto Rothstock, a former Nazi party member, who was convicted but then released after only 18 months — an early clue to the way things were headed.

The movie’s switcheroo from a caricatured but somewhat realist narrative, into an overtly expressionistic fantasy, would seem to support Siegfried Kracauer’s portray of expressionism as an escapist approach which diverted the masses from thinking about what was actually going on around them — a means of avoiding political engagement. Which is a disturbing thought, because I always say that  EXPRESSIONISM WON — nearly all cinema is expressionist now, since all cinema attempts to portray the world from a subjective perspective. Certainly any film which uses music to channel the viewer’s emotions is “guilty” of a mild kind of expressionism…

In a final twist of the historical knife, Breslauer’s dream ending has been lost, and is attached to the surviving film only as a series of stills. Perhaps Bettauer’s shade can derive some satisfaction from that.

13 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Exodus, the dress rehearsal”

  1. Fascinating. I’d only seen the tiny extracts in the documentary Prisoner of Paradise, which dealt with Kurt Gerron and the story of how he came to be forced to make that film. Even without being able to understand the VO, and even knowing that the film is a lie, one can see that he films with sympathy for his camera’s subjects.

    While The Eternal Jew zeroes in on the deformities of malnutrition and portrays Jews as inhuman, Gerron (whose propaganda mission is admittedly different) wants us to feel the humanity of his characters — surely a subversive choice under the circumstances. It makes him even more a tragic hero.

  2. I was extremely fascinated by this one when I saw it recently. The extract stolen from Otsep’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov is willfully distorted by the lying VO to suggest that Kortner’s character is a Jewish murderer and the film endorses his acts. Anti-semitism is one thing, but this propaganda isn’t even SINCERE!

  3. I agree with Kracauer to a degree. Expressionism is necessary, but as with a lot of other necessary items, it is (or was, dunno anymore) overused. I watched a very ordinary ’40s film on TCM last week where much of the action was being telegraphed by the score and it irritated the hell out of me. I think those barren early ’30s films I mostly watch has made me oversensitive to how films use their scores.

  4. I kind of agree that 40s films look soupy in their use of music when you’ve watched a lot of 30s cinema or later stuff.

    On the other hand, a friend has gotten in touch to say I’m misreading Kracauer… and it’s been so long since I read him he may be right.

  5. Then, if I don’t agree with Kracauer, I agree with your misreading of him. Better still!

  6. The thing is, I only like films with a subjective feeling to them, even if it isn’t subjective to anybody IN the film. I’m not really interested in the observational school at all, except observation of behaviour. But this doesn’t preclude engagement with the real world and its issues, it’s just better to show these through somebody’s perception, rather than claiming some objective distance.

  7. Ouch! I wrote an multiparagraphed essay, somewhat rambling and discursive in response. Rather than that, I’ll leave this:

    When expressionism shades to manipulation and is as base as using music to attempt to force from me a response to a film situation that can’t do so on its own, my mind rebels. It’s led more than one person to think I was autistic due to my lack of, or contrary reaction.

  8. The best-known element of Kracauer’s argument — the notion that Caligari’s expressionist “frame” neutered the Mayer-Janowitz vision — took a big hit when Werner Krauss (or I guess his estate) finally made his copy of the original Caligari script public. It just doesn’t jibe with the account Kracauer had gotten from Janowitz, two decades on, of the film’s development. (As far as I know, Mayer never commented on it, at least not to this effect.)

    It does appear that in the early Nazi years there was quite a debate amongst exiled intellectuals as to whether there was something inherently fascist-friendly about expressionism, though I think it was the movement’s anti-rationalist aura that was the main issue. Victor Klemperer points out the expressionist influence on some Nazi iconography, e.g., the SS rune. But I guess the whole question became moot when Goebbels et al. put expressionism in the “decadent” pile.

  9. If Leni Riefenstahl had created something as great as Springtime for Hitler, she’d have measured up to the hype. But she couldn’t, could she? It’s ALL OURS.

  10. Leni’s lack of humour is one of her defining traits… and by extension, so is her inability to conceive of rounded characters. Not just in her films, but in life. Her relationships switch from devotion to utter betrayal, which is why she always felt warmly towards Mr Hitler, who stood by her. And why she apparently had a nervous breakdown when she saw a little of what his great state was up to: it just didn’t compute with her (lack of) understanding of people. He was always nice to her so he MUST be OK, right?

    Fritz Lang apparently liked to claim credit for suggesting the ending of Caligari, which certainly would be consistent with the ending he grafted onto Woman in the Window…

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