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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Baruch Performing Arts Center- The City Without Jews

Hans Moser plays an anti-Semitic national assemblyman in the audacious 1924 silent film "The City Without Jews," a restored print from the showing of the 2019 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Photo: Jewish Film Institute/Courtesy Jewish Film Festival San Fransisco

On October 3, the Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC) will open its new season with a screening of The City Without Jews, a 1926 film by H.K. Breslauer, with original live music composed and performed by klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals and silent film pianist Donald Sosin.

The fictional film, which depicts the expulsion of the city's entire Jewish population following an Antisemitic law passed by the city's National Assembly, is based on the 1924 best-selling novel by Hugo Bettauer. A satirical response to the primitive antisemitism of the 1920s, it eerily foreshadowed the horrific historical events of the Holocaust just a decade later.

In the book, the city is Vienna; in the film adaptation, the unfolding story of a city torn apart by pathological antisemitism is set in the mythical Republic of Utopia.

Scenes depicting the deportation of Jews are powerful in their macabre, dystopian predictions that are soon to become historical reality, yet leave the film’s maxim unfulfilled: After seeing that ridding the city of its Jews, its cultural and economic life declined further, its cultural institutions closed, and beer halls replaced its cafes, the film's population regretted its decision and the government urgently welcomed its Jews back.

Instead, in real-time, shortly after the film's release, Bettauer, the novel's author, was assassinated by Otto Rohstock, a former member of the Nazi Party.

The fascinating history of the film as part of the expressionist art films of the Weimar Republic, including its critical review, rediscovery, and resurrection, is explored in Tablet magazine.

In 1991, a Dutch print of the film surfaced - but it was fragmented and incomplete. Then, in 2015, a nitrate print with the missing footage was found at a flea market in Paris.

The Austrian Film Archive restored the movie with the help of a crowdfunding campaign that included the beautiful, period-appropriate score written and performed by pianist Donald Sosin and klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals, performed at Baruch.

"It is a strong program that connects uniquely with our performing arts program and speaks about community," remarks Howard Sherman, BPAC's current managing director since March 2022. "It was brought to my attention by Jessica Lang," the Dean of Baruch's Weissman School of Arts and Sciences and founding Newman Director of Baruch's Sandra Kahn Wasserman Jewish Studies Center.

"To see the film only as a Jewish story would do it a dis-service," he claims. "While this specific story is about Jews and antisemitism, it raises the question of how far we have come regarding any marginalized group. Unfortunately, the horrible demonization, the ugly tribalism, it all still remains relevant," he says. "Beyond that, part of what appealed to me in this program was the pairing of music and film. A fine work, it has the potential to appeal to multiple constituencies and simultaneously cross perceived barriers in the arts, he explains."

He remains tentative about future aspects of BPAC's programs: "We are experimenting. I am slowly gaging what works and what does not. While I am cautiously optimistic, we are coming out of a transitional time and need to look carefully at each event. This one seemed to have the most provocative message and a beautiful musical program created by performers who are highly regarded professionals in their field. After all, I do believe that the arts are important in communicating values and entertaining at the same time," he says.

Howard Sherman joined the Baruch Performing Arts Center as managing director in March 2022. He has been interim director of Inclusion in the Arts, executive director of the American Theatre Wing and the O’Neill Theater Center, managing director of Geva Theater, general manager of Goodspeed Musicals, and public relations director of Hartford Stage. He created and operates the Arts Integrity Initiative to fight against censorship and for artists' rights in theatre. He is the US columnist and feature writer for The Stage newspaper in London and the author of the book “Another Day’s Begun: Thorton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century.” A Connecticut native, he resides in Manhattan.

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