By Petor Christensen | September 27, 2021
The Austrian silent film, “The City Without Jews”, was screened with live music accompaniment in the Performing Arts Center last Sunday, presented by the New York Writers’ Institute. World-renowned composers Donald Sosin and Alicia Svigals performed their score in the main theatre beside the film.
Sosin is an accomplished composer and pianist in the world of silent film scores. He has composed for popular labels such as Criterion, Kino Lorber, Milestone, and Flicker Alley. Svigals is the world’s leading klezmer violinist and has worked with Sosin on two other films, “The Ancient Law” and “The Man Without A World”.
Also known as “Die Stadt ohne Juden”, Hans Karl Breslauer’s 1924 film was thought to have been lost. The last screening of the 91-minute film was in 1933.
The film was made in a significant time period for Germany and Austria. German/Austrian Expressionism was a revered anti-realism film movement that continues to influence cinema worldwide. The influence of the movement is mostly seen in the extreme use of shadows, set design, and innovative cinematography.
This movement along with expressionism all across Europe was swiftly broken by World War II, being largely replaced by realism. Few films from the Austrian Expressionism movement have survived. Aided by a stroke of luck, a nitrate print was found in perfect condition at a Parisian flea market in 2015.
Filmarchiv Austria–an organization dedicated to restoring and preserving Austrian films –crowdfunded the digital restoration. Three years later, the film was completed and brought to physical media by Flicker Alley (a DVD/Bluray label), including an all-new score.
Although Breslauer’s film is known for its historical significance, the film itself is filled with creative flair. There are clear identifiers of Austrian Expressionism in both the set design and innovative camera techniques, even if they are not as dominant as in the filmographies of expressionist filmmakers Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau.
The film is based on a novel of the same title by Hugo Bettauer, written two years prior. The story is a prescient depiction of antisemitism in the early 20th century. After the Christian Social Party comes to power in the Republic of Utopia, Chancellor Dr. Schwerdtfeger passes a law forcing all Jews to emigrate by Christmas. He and many others blame them for the economy.
The economy has a slight upturn at first, but eventually, it becomes even worse and Utopia’s vibrant culture is thrown into turmoil. With this development, a movement is started to allow them back. When the assembly’s vote approaches, Jewish artist Leo Strakosch removes a representative by getting him drunk. The official is then committed to an institution where he has hallucinations of the stars of David attacking him.
The film ends on a happy note as it’s revealed that all the actions were simply the representative’s bad dream. The novel differs as certain aspects of the film were changed to soften the ensuing controversy. Utopia was simply named Vienna in the novel. The ending had no dream but rather ended with the Jewish population being allowed to return.
Despite these changes, Bettauer was killed by Otto Rothstock, a former member of the Nazi Party. He was released from a psychiatric institution after just two years.
The performance by Sosin and Svigals plays an essential role in emphasizing the visual language of the film. The score continued uninterrupted throughout the entire runtime, something typical of silent films. With Sosin as a pianist and Svigals as a violinist, the score has an excellent tonal range, using the expressive strengths of both instruments. It seamlessly shifts with the sharp editing and becomes dominantly melancholic when it needs to most.
The two were on tour for their “cine-concerts” of the three films they worked on when the pandemic initially struck. All scheduled performances were postponed or canceled. The pair had only appeared for “The City Without Jews” once. Marking the resurgence of their performances, they hope to continue the international tour.