I’m looking at the coming program for this September at the Silent Cinema Galway with a great deal of anticipation. This month puts together a pretty much perfect blend of crowd-pleasing standards, stirred in with more obscure fare; a mix of both together; and finally topped off with a hugely important historical document, presented in the guise of an Austrian expressionist satire from 1924.
So, kudos to Adam Scheffler for his inspired decision to show Die Stadt ohne Juden – The City Without Jews on Saturday 16th September, the night following the 88th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s adoption of the Nuremberg Race Laws, which led to the very existence of the Jewish community being seen as an aberration since they could not be full German citizens and therefor had no political rights. The rest, as we know (although seem to be perpetually in danger of forgetting) is History.
Director Hans Karl Breslauer based his film on a bestselling 1922 novel of the same name, written by the controversial Hugo Bettauer. Although born into the Jewish faith, Bettauer converted to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, but the novel remains his best-known and certainly most prescient work, telling as it does of the mass expulsion of Jews from Vienna.
In his study A Wary Silence: Karl Kraus in Interwar Vienna, Alexander Moulton wrote that in the book, ‘in scenes that are frighteningly prophetic, Austria borrows thirty stock car trains from neighboring countries to help in the expulsion (to the east) of the Jews and their belongings.’ Chilling.
Unfortunately, H. K. Breslauer and his co-scripter Ida Jenbach felt the need to soften the novel slightly (for example changing Vienna to the City of Utopia) and to add comedic elements. But it still was enough to draw the ire of the fledgling National Socialist Party who disrupted early screenings. And in March of 1925, former National Socialist Party member Otto Rothstock killed Bettauer when he shot him five times.
Although he had left the Party, Rothstock was supported by the Nazis and served only 18 months for the murder.
Casual antisemitism was strengthened and the long march to the death camps had begun.
And for the film’s co-writer Ida Jenbach, that was a march that was to eventually become all too real: she died either in Minsk Ghetto or a nearby concentration camp, date unknown.
It seems irrelevant whether or not The City Without Jews is considered a good or a bad piece of cinema. For me, it must stand outside film criticism since it exists as a supremely important document, especially now that anti-Jewish sentiment is once more on the rise – incredibly, after all our promises never to forget. And it is a document that we are lucky to have since it was considered lost until 2015 and is now given back to us by the superb work of the Austrian film restorers.
I love those little coincidences (if there are any such things) that occasionally show up when writing on silent film history, so I was amused to see that on the following Saturday (23rd) the great German director F. W. Murnau will be represented by his masterpiece The Last Laugh. I discussed this film briefly last month and you can check it out in the Alfred Hitchcock piece of August 14. But something else just occurred to me, and here -- if you’ll forgive me -- I’m just thinking out loud.
With The Last Laugh and The City Without Jews, we have two films – one German and one Austrian – from the same year. Both are very different and yet I wonder if we can’t see similar thematic concerns: the hotel doorman of the former finds that his social standing is stripped from him when his age demands that a ‘lowlier’ position is given to him. And so too, at the very beginnings of Nazi rule, Jewish of every class found themselves stripped of their positions – shops, businesses, savings, etc. were forcibly taken from them and used to fill the National Party coffers.
Stretching, perhaps; but it’s just a thought.
And kicking off the not-so-silent month of September are two comedies: One, surprisingly starring Rudolph Valentino, who is not usually known as a bag of laughs. That’s an early one of his, All Night from 1918. And the following Saturday (9th) is the 1928 The Cameraman. And that is the always popular Buster Keaton, so book early.
If I don’t fall off the twig in the meantime, I’ll be back to talk about our end-of-the-month presentation. And it is a wild one! Put it this way, if you want to see some short films from the lady whom David Lynch acknowledges as a heavy influence, you won’t want to miss the Maya Deren Retrospective, with musical accompaniment on Irish harp from Francesca Lundvall.
Until then, stay well – and happy film-going!