Back in 1923, before all the Nazi atrocities reached their horrifying peak, Hugo Bettauer published a novel entitled The City Without Jews. It was a best seller. We are told that it was a satire to show people what would happen if intolerance took hold. Bettauer was himself a Jew, and wanted to write something that spoke out against the increasing backlashes against miscegenation that he was witnessing in Vienna at the time.
In 1924, this book was made into a silent movie, which was recently rediscovered, restored, and has been screened all over the U.S. I looked forward to seeing its debut in Seattle. I was fascinated that at such a fraught time in Austrian history, there was a popular author with such progressive views. (He also wrote about women’s rights and homosexuality at a time when those things were rarely spoken about.) I also hoped it would be very timely in its warnings, given the increased anti-Semitism we are seeing in America and Europe.
I can’t really speak about the book, having not yet read it, but if I hadn’t read up on the movie beforehand, and therefore hadn’t been informed about the message it is supposed to portray, I wouldn’t have drawn that progressive conclusion. Not at all.
Yes, the politicians who vote to have all the Jews removed from this fictional city do come off as buffoons. Yes, the crowds that supported their decisions seem mindless and violent. I’ll give them that. But once the Jews are expelled, and people start to grumble because their city hasn’t been made great again, the Jews are brought back not because the people have somehow rediscovered their moral compass. No, they are brought back because their absence is hurting people in their pocketbook. Jews are treated as a commodity. They come off as a necessary evil.
Several other things made me uncomfortable about the movie, as well.
First of all, there was no indication that ejecting so many people caused any kind of upheaval. The Jews seemed to voluntarily, if reluctantly, leave. No violence. Just some prayers and a tear or two. No talk about losing homes or businesses or loved ones. They trudge down a cold road, on Christmas day, no less, and there’s this feeling of resignation. The richer ones hopped on trains. It was all rather easy and convenient.
Second, even when the people in the city decided that they wanted the Jews back, it only happened through the trickery of a Jew. He sneaks back into town, posing as a Frenchman, and when it’s discovered that the motion is just one vote shy of passing, he gets one of the most racist councilmembers drunk, then drugs him, and drives him around, thus preventing him from being present for the vote. The sneaky Jew prevails.
And if you had missed that message somehow, there’s a scene to reinforce it. The Jew in question is sitting at a table with another man who identifies as Jewish, but was able to stay in the city because he was second generation mixed, so he was essentially “passing”, and he says to the trickster something along the lines of, “Only one of us would be able to do that.” (Meaning trick them into rescinding the law.) Laughs all around.
And then, of course, all the Jews happily come back, the first one met with innocent children bearing flowers, a cheering crowd, and everything gets back to normal and everyone lives happily ever after. Uh… what?
While watching this movie, I tried to tell myself to stop looking at it through a 21st century lens. I kept reminding myself that it was supposed to be a satire. But I struggled. I really struggled.
I think you could just cut out a scene or two, and this could be shown at a White Supremacist rally as a comedy that lampoons Judaism, right down to their bobbing and wailing in the Synagogue. (And I found it interesting that a lot of the politicians were similarly bobbing while passing their evil laws.)
I know that the author meant well. He even paid for it with his life. A year after the movie came out, he was killed by a Nazi who was then declared temporarily insane, did a year and a half in a mental institution, and then was set free to live his hateful, unrepentant life until 1977.
But still, I struggle. If you’re interested, you can see the movie for free on Youtube. Let me know what you think. I’d be genuinely interested in hearing from you.
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