A nearly 100-year-old silent film that outraged Anti-Semites is making its Iowa premiere. Here's what makes it special
A 99-year-old film that was lost for decades is making its way to a small Iowa town for the first time. First released in Austria in 1924, The City Without Jews is a silent-era satire with a complicated history.
On Tuesday, Sept. 26, audience members will get to see the film with live accompaniment from the composers of the film's score: world-renowned klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals and celebrated silent film pianist Donald Sosin at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center.
The screening coincides with the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are a time of both celebration and reflection. The screening is free to attend. Svigals and Sosin will introduce the film and participate in an audience Q&A afterward.
A film thought to be lost
The City Without Jews is based on Hugo Bettauer’s 1922 novel of the same name and critiques the growing anti-Semitism in Austria at the time. The book was a success, selling over 250,000 copies; however, the film stirred up contempt for its author and his ideas.
The story was set in the fictional Austrian city of Utopia (Vienna in the book) and depicts how a city would decline — economically and culturally — if its Jewish citizens were expelled. Although it was a satire, The City Without Jews proved to be a prophetic telling of what would soon happen in Europe. One particularly prescient scene shows Jews being transported out of the city on freight trains.
Anti-Semitic crowds were outraged by the criticisms it raised against their political ideology. And, shortly after the film’s premiere in July 1924, Bettauer was murdered by a member of the Nazi party.
The man responsible for killing Bettauer was found guilty and served less than two years in a psychiatric hospital before public outcry from anti-Semitic sympathizers resulted in his early release, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
The City Without Jews was shown in public for the last time in Amsterdam in 1933 as a form of protest against Hitler’s rising popularity. According to the film’s current distributor, Flicker Alley, all complete prints were thought to be destroyed.
From lost to restored
It wasn’t until 2015, when a complete copy of the film was found in a Parisian flea market, that it again became known to the wider public. Having undergone restoration by the Austrian Film Archive, it was re-released with English titles, but without an official score, in 2018. The 2020 Flicker Alley release featuring the score by Svigals and Sosin was the first time the movie became available on Blu-ray/DVD.
Sosin, who will be performing the live piano score at the Fairfield screening, has worked on thousands of silent films and continues to be amazed by how many have endured throughout history.
“It's a miracle that any of these films survive — the Jewish ones particularly, given what was happening in Central Europe at the time — the fact that the Nazis didn't go out and root out every copy of these things and destroy them the way they destroyed art,” Sosin said.
According to Michael Cowan, Chair of the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa, it’s estimated that roughly 10% of all silent films have survived, meaning around 90% have been either partially lost or destroyed.
“This is the dilemma that archivists are faced with,” Cowan said. “I think this started in the late 20th century, that archivists started realizing all this celluloid is going to rot. We're going to save what we can, but nobody has the funding to save it all.”
Composing the score
Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin composed the score for the film during the COVID-19 pandemic, sending files back and forth until they pieced together the final version.
“We started absolutely from scratch,” Sosin said. “We have no idea what the music was when the film was released, as with so many films from that era.”
According to Svigals, the nuanced portrayal of the Jewish community in 1920s Austria inspired her to embrace the cultural sounds of the characters on screen.
“This performance, in particular, is really special and unique because very few people in the world are actually steeped in Yiddish musical language — klezmer, Ashkenazi, cantorial sounds — and all of that got folded into this music,” Svigals said.
The composing duo said they watched the film dozens of times as they continued to develop the score, breaking it up scene by scene.
“You don't watch it from start to finish so many times,” Sosin said. “But if you're working on a scene, you go over and over and over it.”
Svigals agreed, adding, “It's very labor-intensive.”
She went on to describe the complex process of capturing the emotions of a film.
“While we're playing, we're watching the movie on our screen, simultaneously dividing our two eyes so we could also watch our music, which is pretty involved. It's nothing that you could memorize, especially the piano part,” Svigals said. “It’s keeping an eye on what the audience is watching to make sure everything's in sync, and playing with feeling, while also trying to play spontaneously because we still do it a little bit differently every time.”
Svigals and Sosin have performed together hundreds of times, all over the world. Their recent work on The City Without Jews was supported by the Sunrise Foundation for Education and the Arts, which is co-sponsoring the screening in Fairfield.
The City Without Jews is not the first silent film to play at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, but according to Solomon Davis, the center’s assistant director, it will be a special occasion.
Davis said that having the composers of the official film score present to perform a live accompaniment will elevate the viewing experience for attendees.
“Knowing that if I were to purchase the DVD or Blu-ray of The City Without Jews, that Donald and Alicia’s score would accompany that — and knowing that the musicians who composed that were going to be here performing live — seemed like a really special opportunity,” Davis said.
A moment in history
Sosin said he enjoys learning about different eras and cultures through his work. For The City Without Jews, in particular, he was interested in seeing what life was like during the making of the film.
“I always think it's fascinating to see the way people move and dress, even if it's a fiction film,” Sosin explained. “It comes out of whatever the culture was in Vienna in 1924 and how they decided to depict these people.”
Professor Cowan, who specializes in Weimar Republic-era German film and European film, said the release of The City Without Jews came at a complex time in history.
“You have a lot of immigration coming from Eastern Europe, among which is a lot of Jewish immigration, and so that becomes the target of anti-Semitic stereotypes, especially surrounding tropes of primitivism and cleanliness,” Cowan said. “This came out in The City Without Jews so much.”
However, at the same time, Cowan said many progressive changes were happening in the Weimar Republic, such as women’s suffrage and the lifting of some social barriers for Jews, like attending universities.
“That's kind of the context that I try to tell students,” Cowan said. “It's both an incredibly fascinating and progressive era — and one of unbelievable political polarization and violence.”
Dean Draznin, vice president of Beth Shalom Congregation in Fairfield, is planning to attend Tuesday’s show. He said the timing of the event around the Jewish High Holidays makes it a good time to gather and reflect.
“This has particular interest to me because of the subject matter, of course. And it's timely — unfortunately timely — because we're seeing a rise in anti-Semitism around the country,” Draznin said. “Fortunately, we don't see that very much in Iowa — and certainly not in Fairfield. But because it is a phenomenon, a sad recurrence, it is something that I think many Jews are aware of and are sensitive to.”
More information about The City Without Jews screening can be found on the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center website.
The Fairfield Arts & Convention Center is a sponsor of Iowa Public Radio.