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.