Die Stadt ohne Juden - Olga Neuwirth International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn

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A major economic crisis in the republic of Utopia has affected the nation. People find a scapegoat responsible, as they say, for economic and social crises: the Jews. A new, strongly anti-Semitic chancellor is elected, who sees Jews as an unwanted element.

The government therefore decides to expel them from the country. With time, Utopia begins to experience the consequences of their absence in the fields of culture, diversity, and social economy. One of the exiled Jews, Leo Strakosch, secretly returns to the republic in order to persuade the society that their anti-Semitic views were wrong. 

The film Die Stadt ohne Juden, made in 1924, is considered especially important in the history of Austrian cinematography. It owes its high status to the use of elements characteristic of German expressionism. The film is based on a 1922 book by the acclaimed writer Hugo Bettauer, stigmatised by the Nazis as a “red, youth-corrupting poet.” The success of the film adaptation probably led to his death. 

Jérémie Szpirglas talks to Olga Neuwirth about her music for the film Die Stadt ohne Juden 

How did you come across this movie? Did you know the book before the film?
It is a long story, so I have to go back many years. Between 1983 and 1993 I was intensely searching for my identity. In the late 1980s, I went on a private guided tour of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, which I had succeeded in arranging in connection with research into my family’s past. During the tour, my attention was attracted to some neglected-looking objects in the museum’s collection. It turned out I had stumbled upon the suppressed story of a collection of human remains of murdered Jewish citizens who had served as “anthropological research” objects. I shall never forget the stench of formaldehyde! Shocked, I told Elfriede Jelinek of my discovery. She incorporated what I had told her into a chapter of one of her books, Children of the Dead (1995), which got the ball rolling. It led to the first public debates on the subject, as well as restitution proceedings and the burial of the human remains. 

When I got an opera commission in Austria in 2000, we wanted to focus on this horrendous topic. We proposed Children of Spiegelgrund as the theme. Am Spiegelgrund has become synonymous for the Nazi child euthanasia program at the Viennese psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof. It was here that sick, mentally handicapped and behaviourally disruptive children were maltreated, tortured and killed by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945. It was also during my “identity search” that I read Hugo Bettauer’s incredibly clairvoyant and visionary 1922 book Die Stadt ohne Juden. Shortly afterwards, I saw the unrestored version of the silent film. So I knew Die Stadt ohne Juden quite well when in 2016 I was approached by the Wiener Konzerthaus. They wanted me to write music for the world premiere of the restored version of the movie. 

Why write music for this film? And why now? 
I was asked to do so when recordings of that lost film were unearthed at a flea market in Paris and handed over to Film Archive Austria. But this film is not just another old silent movie. It is a politically involved work. And now that politicians once again find empty formal excuses for racism and for inciting to hatred on a daily basis, the time has come to stop ignoring the slogans we are showered with. The silent movie Die Stadt ohne Juden was the most sought-after lost film in Austrian film history. Film Archive Austria, which meticulously restored the film, indicates that there is no other film from this period that so uncompromisingly deals with the persecution of Jews and represents Jewish life. Today this hatred of Jews is again being articulated with ever greater bluntness, also in Western democracies. 

Made in 1924, the film is like an apocalyptic vision of what was later to become reality. Journalist and author Hugo Bettauer, on whose book the film is based, was murdered in his office by a young Nazi only a few months after the film was premiered. The murderer was never convicted as he had the protection of anti-Semitic lawyers and influential politicians. 

I rejected the Wiener Konzerthaus offer at first as I felt I did not have enough time properly to “comment” on this extraordinary film with my music. Such a task is a huge responsibility. Then, as is often the case in small Vienna, I accidentally bumped into Hans Hurch, head of the Viennale, in the street. He told me that despite my doubts I should write the music and that he believed in me. He was so persistent and persuasive that I withdrew my refusal. This is why my music for the film is also dedicated to Hans Hurch, who died unexpectedly last summer. It is quite clear that with a fleeting medium such as music I cannot contribute any objective truth to the film’s content. So, after having analysed the film material, I could only try to present my own personal musical perspective on it. I hope the result is a happy combination of complexity with productive uncertainty, attained through the application of intricate camouflage techniques combined with (ironic) distance and powerful-sounding anger (at the cruelty of humans resulting from their pure egotism, greed, and envy). Let us fear humans, for in us there is plenty that should alarm and appal us! 

I know that you are politically involved in Vienna. Did this influence your composition?
My involvement has not just begun recently, nor does it have anything to do with the fact that it has lately become fashionable for women composers to make political statements—sorry, but this needs to be said. I have taken the risk to speak out since I was fifteen. In the past many of my colleagues considered open public statements on political issues to be a distraction from “serious” musical topics. Perhaps they also reacted with such contempt because it was not befitting for a woman to voice such opinions – it was seen as inappropriate behaviour and an overstepping of boundaries. I was especially harshly criticised after my public speech titled Ich lasse mich nicht wegjodeln (I won’t be yodelled out of the way) at the mass demonstration held in Vienna on 19 February 2000 against the government’s coalition with the right-wing FPÖ. Here I must give a longer explanation again... (laughs). The need to understand the mechanisms of power, populism and anti-Semitism has always played a great role in my life. It is an attempt to try to understand and be aware of the shameless and uncontrollable outbursts of resentment, such as those we are now experiencing everywhere. The book, which Bettauer subtitled Ein Roman von übermorgen (A Novel from the Day After Tomorrow), was also conceived as a scathing satirical analysis of the situation in those days. Unlike the restored film, the book ends with Vienna’s mayor cynically and prudishly cooing: “Mein lieber Jude...” (My dear Jew...). When an Austrian greets you with “Mein lieber...” or “Meine liebe,” you know immediately that you have to watch out! In the book it is drastically depicted how the crowd, which had just welcomed the expulsion of all Jews from the city with euphoric applause, starts cheering when the Jews are asked to return. Bettauer describes it with bitter irony at the end of the book: “...Fanfares, blare of trumpets. The Mayor of Vienna, Herr Karl Maria Laberl, appeared on the balcony with his arms outstretched in a gesture of benediction...” Every time I hear the name Karl Maria Laberl I cannot help laughing, because for me it is a clear reference to the leader and founder of Austria’s Christian Social Party (CS), Dr Karl Lueger, who professed his anti-Semitism as early as 1887. 

The German-national and Christian-social factions (which are also mentioned in the film) joined forces in 1887 to form an electoral union for Vienna’s municipal elections; they were later active as the United Christians (Vereinigte Christen). At that time, many young clergymen believed that social problems could be solved by answering what became known as the Judenfrage (Jewish question). In their opinion, improvement in the living conditions of the city’s craftsmen could only be achieved through anti-Jewish legislation. Lueger’s anti-Semitic rhetoric gained widespread popularity among the city’s population. Just as the word Laberl has several meanings in Viennese jargon, so also the name of the Austrian federal chancellor in the film, Dr Schwerdtfeger, has an underlying meaning since it sounds like “someone who sweeps everything aside with his sword” or “a sword-waving go-getter.” Initially Dr Schwerdtfeger responds with reserve to the idea of expelling the Jews, but later, for tactical and egoistic reasons, he assumes the ideological leadership of this movement. He goes on to deliver highly emotional speeches in front of the Parliament explaining why it is impossible to co-exist with the city’s Jewish population. In doing so, he seizes upon various stereotypes that strongly coincide with anti-Semitic rhetoric in general, and with how people used to express themselves at the time. 

In 1899 Karl Kraus called anti-Semitism in Vienna the “disgrace of the century.” He distrusted the tendency of the press to whitewash problems by presenting them in a comic light, or to ignore them and pass them over in the hope this will make them appear less serious. Like Karl Kraus, Bettauer was an analytically thinking journalist with a critical attitude to his times. Just as today, people’s lives were dominated by three experiences central to that time: a sense of loss, the threat of losing their socioeconomic status, as well as a mood oscillating between revolutionary spirit, hate campaigns and a culture of agitation of the kind one mostly encounters today in public statements in social media. Inflation and unemployment exacerbated this tense situation. Populism was and continues to be used to fuel social imbalance and to stir up divisions between the rich and poor, city and country, locals and foreigners. 

In the book, and hence also in the film, the city’s population demands the expulsion of the Jews, whom they hold responsible for all the negative developments. But by now we should have learned that human rights are not something to be considered in the abstract, but something very concrete that has to be tested again and again since our living together depends on them. However, some people have apparently still failed to learn from history, or they do not want to acknowledge how problematic extreme nationalism is. Current parallels to these hate campaigns and disdain are terrifying. Both the book and the film had a shocking effect on me, not only because of the anti-Semitism that was once again quite openly expressed in the streets of Austria again during the Waldheim Affair in 1986 (which eventually refuted the claim that Austria had been Hitler’s first victim), but also because I am saddened by the fact that all over the world populism, racism, hatred of foreigners, and anti-Semitism are again being used today in election campaigns to divide societies. In this sense, the film is highly topical. 

How do you proceed with writing music for such a film? Do you attempt, without making your music redundant, to mirror the camera movement and cuts in some ways?
I proceed as I did with David Lynch’s movie Lost Highway while working on my opera in 2002: I start by analysing the film frame by frame. It is a lot of work, but it is very interesting to see in detail how a film is constructed. There is no simple solution to the complex relationship between image and music. Naturally, I do not want to go for pure illustration or “Mickey Mousing,” as Hanns Eisler called it, but sometimes I do it anyway, when I think it is needed or when I see it is fun... (laughs). I find it very exciting how Pier Paolo Pasolini used music in his films. I analysed several of his films when I was seventeen and that has influenced me a lot. 

How do you bring out the irony of the film? Bitter irony at that, considering how prophetic the vision proved...
Very bitter irony, indeed. It was important for me not to overdo any of the characters but take them seriously, so that the viewer does, too. Despite my horrified realisation that not much seems to have changed since the book came out in 1922, and in order to avoid clichés even though I often allude to them, I have tried to retain a certain vividness in the music so that it is touching and rough, heart-warming and open, amusing and angry, involved and distanced, humorous and sad at the same time. But this has been very di cult for me. It is not only about how deeply anti-Semitism is rooted in the Austrian spirit, but also about Identity and Otherness, a sense of home and exile. 

Just to mention a few of the “techniques” I applied: I used several samples of Austrian yodelling, which I transformed. They appear on the sample level that runs through the whole movie and also in some of the instrumental parts. I have also used a few very short excerpts from wine tavern songs (Heurigenlieder) that were sung by Hans Moser. Moser, who plays the anti-Semitic Councillor Bernart in the film, was then already quite famous for his performances in Vienna’s cabarets and revues following World War I. He later became the icon of the typical wine-loving, melancholy Austrian who drinks to forget... If you see the film, you will understand why I used this material. I also quote a fragment of a song used in Austria during right-wing populist election rallies in recent years. It is frightening for me to hear with what dedication people follow this kind of nationalist lyrics and manipulative music. Indeed, time and again, Austria has sadly become a trailblazer for right-wing populist movements... 

The interview, conducted in January 2018, was published in the Wien Modern 31: Security Festival Catalogue, 28 October–30 November 2018, essays, pp. 131–35. 

(Translated by Tomasz Zymer)