Austria’s race against time to save anti-Nazi film

One of Austria's most important anti-Nazi films was thought lost for decades, until it was uncovered by chance last year. Now experts must race to keep from losing The City Without Jews again - this time from decay.

Austria's race against time to save anti-Nazi film
Still from The City Without Jews

Shot and screened in Vienna in 1924, the silent film proved disturbingly prophetic in its dark depiction of anti-Semitism clutching the Austrian capital in the wake of World War I.

Based on the eponymous bestseller by Austrian writer Hugo Bettauer, it tells the story of an anti-Semitic mayor who, reacting to rising social discontent, opts to expel all Jews.

The decision leads the city to the brink of ruin as its economy declines and unemployment explodes. In the end, the law is repealed and the banished Jews are welcomed back.

The black-and-white movie broke ground as the world's first cinematographic work to foreshadow the horrors of the Third Reich, according to the Film Archive Austria (FAA).

It would also cost Bettauer his life: the liberal author and journalist was killed by a Nazi a few months after the movie's premiere.

“'The City Without Jews' is much more than a film: it is an anti-Nazi manifesto”, said Nikolaus Wostry of the FAA.

The Vienna-based archive only possessed a fragmented version of the original until a French art collector stumbled across a near-complete reel at a flea market in Paris in 2015.

Hitherto unknown scenes provided a much sharper articulation of the rising anti-Semitism in Vienna, which had been a prominent centre of Jewish culture at the start of the 20th century.

“This version is the missing link. We have many wonderful new takes giving an insight into the Jewish community in Vienna, but there are also scenes showing the pogroms,” Wostry said.

The copy also contained the final scene, revealing a slightly altered ending — albeit still a happy one — to that in the book.

Capital 'of anti-Semitism'

However, the FAA fears that the new reel could soon once again be lost as it shows serious signs of deterioration.

The institute has launched a crowd-funding appeal until December 10th to raise money for the restoration of the highly flammable nitrate film.

“We have to save it and make it available to the public, not just for its historic value but also for its current message against the walls we are building and the exclusion of people,” said Wostry.

The archive has already raised three-quarters of the required €75,000 ($79,500).

“It would be fitting to show this film in Vienna, which was the capital of political anti-Semitism,” Wostry said.

At the time of the movie's release, a dangerous wind of change was already blowing across the Austrian city.

Home to great minds like Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig and Gustav Mahler, Vienna in 1897 voted in the openly anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger who would stay in power for 13 years.

In 1907, Adolf Hitler, aged 18, moved to the capital. His six years spent here would prove a highly formative time and steer his political views. Hitler greatly admired Lueger and later referred to him in Mein Kampf.

'Light version'

Observers say the anti-Semitic backlash was fuelled by a steady influx of eastern European Jews drawn to “sparkling Vienna”.

“At the turn of the century, anti-Semitism is a cultural code directed against the elites, the financial circles, the press,” historian Jacques le Rider told AFP.

The situation turned critical after World War I as Jewish refugees fleeing violence on the Russian front stream into the capital.

“Hyper-inflation and unemployment explode in Austria, already humiliated by the loss of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Xenophobia reaches a new dimension,” le Rider said.

Bettauer, a Jew converted to Protestantism, astutely captured these changes in his novel published in 1922.

“He perfectly describes the climate of anti-Semitic terror which gripped Austria at the time,” Werner Hanak-Lettner of the Jewish Museum in Vienna told AFP.

The release of the film two years later sparked huge protests and would eventually force several of its Jewish actors to emigrate.

Less successful than the book, the movie vanished after a screening in Amsterdam in the 1930s. Six decades later, a copy was found in the Netherlands Filmmuseum.

Austrian experts say the emergence of the new version shows that the Dutch copy from 1991 had been edited for foreign audiences. “This seems to have been a 'light version' of the original, destined for export and cleared of the shock factor,” Wostry said.


Neglected Austrian creator of ‘Bambi’ celebrated in Vienna show

While the 1942 Disney film "Bambi" is world famous as a classic of animated cinema, the man behind the story -- an eminent writer in pre-war Vienna who had to flee the Nazis -- is little known.

Neglected Austrian creator of 'Bambi' celebrated in Vienna show
Various translations of the iconic tale "Bambi: A Life In The Woods" by Felix Salten are seen on display at the City Hall Library in Vienna on March 23, 2021. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Felix Salten was a product of the cultural blossoming in the capital of the then Austro-Hungarian empire around the turn of the 20th Century.

As a Vienna exhibition which shines a spotlight on the neglected creator shows, he was a prolific writer who moved in the same circles as the likes of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

Salten wrote the iconic and poignant tale of the fawn bereaved of his mother by hunters in 1922 under the title “Bambi: A Life In The Woods”.

READ MORE: How Austria’s newest citizens reclaimed a birthright stolen by the Nazis

On its publication the following year, it did not enjoy immediate success among the reading public.

However, in the 1930s, Salten — himself a hunter — sold the film rights for the text for $1,000 to an American producer, who in turn sold them to Disney.

As for the book itself, “Felix Salten changed publishers and from then on it became much more successful,” said Ursula Storch, curator of the exhibition at the Wien Museum dedicated to the city’s history.

“Of course it was made even more famous by the film adaptation in 1942,” Storch told AFP.

But by then, “Bambi”, along with the rest of Salten’s work, had been banned because he was Jewish, first in Germany and then in Austria after Hitler’s annexation of the country in 1938. 

Literary ‘chameleon’

The film’s success, however, was enough to give rise to numerous retellings of the story. Storch says that while Salten himself never offered a commentary on the meaning of the book, it is a powerful evocation of the dark side of human nature and the relationship between humans and the environment.

“It’s a book which is deeply anchored in its time and is much more than a simple children’s story about the loss of one’s mother,” said philosopher Maxime Rovere, author of the preface to a new French edition.

Given “the impression of fear, the way the animals must constantly escape,” Rovere says it is “impossible not to make the link with (Salten’s) personal experience”, living as he did through an era of rising anti-Semitism.

But as the exhibition makes clear, there is much more to the work of Salten than “Bambi”. Born in 1869 in Budapest, he and his family moved to the imperial capital the following year.

At around the age of 20, he began a career as a journalist, which remained his staple source of income for around 50 years, according to Marcel Atze, head of the manuscripts department at Vienna City Library.

However, Salten’s oeuvre of some 50 books spans opera librettos, poetry, art criticism, film scripts and even a pornographic novel under the title of “Josefine Mutzenbacher”.

He won a reputation as a versatile literary “chameleon”.

Storch says that his social life was no less notable, with Freud and composer Richard Strauss among his acquaintances.

But the Anschluss shattered that world, with Salten later writing of his “contempt for the Viennese and for Austrians in general” after many of them joyfully welcomed Hitler’s takeover of their country.

His diaries record an ever-growing anxiety.

“His writings are very moving,” Atze, who spent several weeks poring over the journals with colleagues, said. “When you read them you can absolutely imagine what was happening,” he added. 

‘Feeling of redemption’

Atze says that only a few such documents survive from this tumultuous period, making Salten “an unbelievably valuable witness”.

In March 1939, Salten fled to Switzerland, taking with him a library comprising thousands of volumes.

Two years later, the Nazis stripped him of his nationality.

Atze notes that this news is written in red in Salten’s diary instead of the usual blue or black and that the attendant possibility of being deported from Switzerland as a stateless individual must have left him “trembling” until his death in 1945.

His Swiss granddaughter Lea Wyler never knew him personally but says that accounts handed down through the family tell of a “broken man” marked by successive tragedies.

“He had lost his only son in a car accident, he lost his home, Vienna, friends,” she told AFP by phone.

She laments the fact that out of work left by her “loving, humorous, cheeky” grandfather, only “Bambi” is remembered — and that the Disney adaptation has eclipsed the original.

“The crazy thing is that everybody thinks that Disney wrote it. He did not even get that credit, that is really annoying,” she said.

Nevertheless, Wyler adds the fact that Vienna is now celebrating Salten has brought “a feeling of redemption”.