When the silent film “The City Without Jews” was first released in 1924, Adolf Hitler was in prison, the Nazi party was banned and the murder of 6 million Jews in Europe was unthinkable. Made in Austria, “The City Without Jews” tells a fictional story of the expulsion of Jews from the city of Utopia—a stand-in for Vienna. With the benefit of hindsight, the film is eerily prescient to modern viewers.

“The City Without Jews” is this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival’s mid-festival selection, and comes to the festival by way of FilmArchiv Austria. Until 2015, a complete version of the film had been seemingly lost to history. In 1991, archivists found an incomplete and damaged version of the film at the Dutch Film Museum. In 2015, a collector happened upon a complete version of the film, with the ending intact, at a Paris flea market. FilmArchiv Austria raised funds to cover the cost of restoring the film digitally.

The film is adapted from the satirical best-selling novel by Hugo Bettauer. Bettauer was an Austrian Jewish writer and journalist who converted to evangelical Christianity. Nevertheless, Bettauer promoted liberal views supporting education for women, tolerance of homosexuals and the decriminalization of abortions. He was also a fierce critic of anti-Semitism.


In the novel as well as the film, Austria’s Jews are condemned to a dystopian future. Just as an anti-Semitic chancellor has taken power in Utopia/Vienna, inflation is rampant, unemployment is skyrocketing and currency is not worth the paper on which it is printed. He quickly finds a scapegoat in the Jews and orders all Jews to leave the city. There are jarring scenes of Jews being herded into trains, and leaving on foot in the middle of a cold night wearing prayer shawls and carrying Torah scrolls.

Without Jews in Utopia, the city becomes gloomy and deteriorates into a cultural wasteland. Fine pastry shops are transformed into vulgar beer halls and haute couture salons are reduced to proffering cheap costumes. Jews are not the only ones expelled from Utopia. Intermarried couples must leave with their children. Leo and Lotte are an engaged couple—he is Jewish and she is the daughter of one of the members of the National Assembly who voted to purge Utopia of its Jews.

Leo is an artist who makes his way back to Utopia disguised as a non-Jewish painter from Paris. As things continue to fall apart in Utopia, Leo and Lotte scheme to bring the Jews home. The two arrange to have an anti-Semitic assemblyman kidnapped while there’s a vote in the chamber to reinstate the country’s Jews. Without the assemblyman’s crucial vote, the new law passes. The Jews are ensured safe passage back to Austria and Leo is hailed as a hero. Real life, of course, did not portend such a happy ending for European Jews after World War II. In fact, a few months after the film premiered, a member of the former Nazi party assassinated Bettauer in his office. He was 52 years old.

When it was first released, “The City Without Jews” was not uniformly hailed as a great piece of filmmaking. In an unsettling piece of irony, audiences in Austria considered the plot too ridiculous. After it was screened in New York, The New York Times panned it as, “One of the most fatuous productions imaginable with a title to attract attention, but no…problems, no acting above subnormal, no interesting situations and no unusual photographer.”

Now in 2018, the film returns during a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States. Nikolaus Wostry, director of collections at FilmArchiv Austria, told The Washington Post: “The film’s release does not take place in a political vacuum. In today’s Europe, we can clearly see the exploitation of people’s fears once again. Politicians focus them on target groups—be it immigrants or followers of religions. And as Austrians, we have a special responsibility.”

The film has also been re-released in time to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi Anschluss of Austria and the upcoming centennial of the establishment of the First Austrian Republic. In addition to making the rounds at American Jewish film festivals, “The City Without Jews” has been screened throughout Austria and selected European cities. FilmArchiv Austria has made available related educational materials, a catalogue and an exhibit that complements the film.

“The City Without Jews” screens on Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Coolidge Corner Theatre. Find more information here.