Long-lost film that predicted rise of anti-Semitism has ominous message for today’s world

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BERLIN — In Europe, anti-Semitism once again dominated this week’s news agenda.

On Monday, thousands marched in London against what they perceive to be blatant anti-Semitism in Britain’s mainstream Labour Party. The same day, the Paris prosecutor’s office said that it was investigating whether anti-Semitism was a motivation for the killing of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor last week. Anti-Semitic incidents in schools triggered a quest to find solutions all week in Germany. And in Poland, a renowned anti-racism activist was branded a traitor after speaking out against the nation’s controversial anti-defamation law concerning Holocaust complicity.

It’s against this backdrop that producers of a newly restored 1924 movie want their work to be seen.

Austria’s national film archive has worked for over a year to carefully restore “The City Without Jews,” a pre-World War II silent film that served as a warning against the scapegoating of Jews at the time. The film — which sparked furious reactions in the mid-1920s — was believed to have been lost until a copy was discovered in a Paris flea market in 2015.

The film describes a fictional city in the 1920s, troubled by rising unemployment and poverty, and where resentments against Jews is mounting as people increasingly blame them for the city’s woes. After a national law is passed to force all Jews to leave the country, residents celebrate — only to soon realize that they are worse off than before. The law is eventually reversed.

Digitized and restored through thousands of hours of painstaking work and funded by donations from across the world, the film is now set to tour Europe to serve as a deliberately eerie, contemporary warning.

“We received enormous financial support from abroad, including from Americans following the 2016 U.S. elections,” said Nikolaus Wostry, the managing director of Austria’s national film archive, an organization that is privately managed but to a large extent publicly funded. The film’s message, Wostry said, goes beyond anti-Semitism and may be more broadly applicable.

“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,” said Wostry, referring to the rhetoric used across Europe and North America against refugees and immigrants. “And as Austrians, we have a special responsibility.”

“Even before the Nazis annexed Austria, this was one of the centers of anti-Semitism. Hitler learned how to exploit anti-Semitism here in Vienna,” said Wostry.

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of Austria’s annexation to Hitler’s Third Reich. “But even before then, there were many demonstrations here in Vienna where Jews were blamed and made the scapegoats for the unemployment and economic misery after Austria’s defeat in World War I,” he said.

Public opinion changed rapidly during the years between the world wars as Austria’s economic situation worsened, baffling even close observers at the time. Just years before the widespread eruption of anti-Semitism there, Austria had been at the vanguard of religious liberty in Europe as one of the first countries to give Muslims the same rights as Christians or Jews.

Just as baffling to some is the current political climate in Austria. In 2017, a new governing coalition was formed involving the far-right Freedom Party and the conservative People’s Party. This has cast a new cloud over the national identity, which has been torn between its early liberal advances and its darkest hours during the Nazi era ever since.

Freedom Party officials have consistently rejected accusations of providing Nazis or far-right extremists too much leeway, and its leaders continue to demonize Muslims and to stoke tensions with Italy over the identity of northern Italians, many of whom speak German.

Along with Muslim organizations, Jewish groups have observed such toughening rhetoric with growing concern.

While it is pure coincidence that “The City Without Jews” was rediscovered exactly when the debate about immigration and anti-Semitism was reaching its peak in 2015, it did mean that it was easy for Vienna’s national film archive to quickly acquire the funding for the film’s restoration.

“The City Without Jews” reemergence has also come as a surprise to experts of pre-World War II films. More than 90 percent of all silent films produced during that period were subsequently destroyed because they could no longer be distributed after sound became the norm. The film reels were often burned to produce silver, resulting in vast cultural treasures being lost forever.

Also, the Nazis destroyed hundreds of thousands of books, magazines and films critical of their regime or their goals until the end of World War II in coordinated raids. In the 1930s, books deemed offensive by the Nazis were burned on huge pyres across Nazi-dominated territory, and critical artists were imprisoned or killed. The copies of “The City Without Jews” that have resurfaced were likely hidden from Nazi authorities.

Another copy of “The City Without Jews” was discovered in 1991, but enthusiasm over the find quickly faded when the damage to the film was assessed: Many scenes, including the final minutes, were lost. They were only finally filled in with the 2015 discovery.

“Until that point, we didn’t even know how much of an anti-Nazi statement the film was,” Wostry said.

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