Friday, 16 November 2018

Days of future past… City Without Jews (1924), Barbican with Olga Neuwirth and PHACE Ensemble conducted by Nacho de Paz

In the pre-screening Q&A with Bryony Dixon, composer Olga Neuwirth mentioned that she had just heard Theresa May say that political leadership wasn’t about the “easy task” but about “the right task” in response to the people’s will. It’s a phrase that the Austrian felt chimed very much with the decision by the Chancellor in this film’s fictitious country of Utopia when, responding to the electorate’s constant blaming of the Jews for their every ill, he decides to exile them all even against his better judgement.

Populism is nothing new and neither is religious intolerance and this film and Hugo Bettauer’s book upon which it is based, are excruciatingly prescient and so very relevant now as then and much in between. Shortly after the film was released Bettauer was murdered by a former member of the Nazi Party… a man who was released after spending just two years in a psychiatric hospital: justice was poorly served in 1920s Austria and there was, of course, far, far worse to come.

What began as a comedy satire thus ended up almost immediately as tragedy and is now imbued with the unbearable weight of a history with no sign of let up. Today, as the British government squabbled over Brexit and our relationship with the European Union, a politics founded in defining our commonality by rejecting “otherness” once again took its toll: it’s the oldest trick in the book and it works a charm in extending human misery.

The Chancellor
Olga Neuwirth is an Avant Garde composer from Graz in southern Austria, she is of Jewish heritage and has witnessed a rekindling of racial tensions throughout her life in this mainly Slovanian area. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declined throughout the Nineteenth Century leaving a power vacuum and messy local conflicts one of which led to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand.

She has worked on film before and developed an opera based on David Lunch’s Inland Empire: she knows her films and her music and felt a specific responsibility with this commission. The result was uncompromising and nothing like we would normally hear for a silent film score but she wanted to present musically the enduring socio-political context this film already has.

Using a live orchestra of nine musicians and a pre-recorded backing track she produced an unsettling score that was hand-in-glove with the action on screen but which mixed jarring atonality with skilfully-twisted lines designed to disrupt and disturb. At one point a drunken, disjointed Land of Hope and Glory appears when some characters are in London, it was stretched almost beyond recognition but gave a hint of how the other themes used might sound to Austrians familiar with them: most of tonight’s audience didn’t have that context.

The people and their will
She used songs which were popular at the time and tunes which are contemporary symbols of the far right in Austria and always, wanted to convey “the creepiness, the uncertainty that everything can happen again… the past and the future are the same; it can always happen again…” and the music plays a major part in the connection.

The composer was already very familiar with the book and the film and when the missing footage was rediscovered in a Paris flea market in 2015… she was the natural choice even though she resisted at first and had to be persuaded by the head of the Viennale

She believes that the book should be taught in Austrian schools – Austria denied they were part of the Nazi programmes even until the 80’s – and feels it’s “already too late” to show the film given the rise of anti-Semitism again in Austria. It’s a depressing point of view but it is her truth and this is precisely why her score felt so angry; the more combative score I’ve ever heard for a silent film, a call for action and attention beyond the prime directive of accompanying this remarkable film.

This book is a satire but she didn’t feel that Bettauer felt he was any way in danger – he was playing with forms, even he didn’t want to recognise the seriousness… in the end it caught up with him as it has with millions. So, quite logically, Neuwirth’s score is as close to a red flashing light as you’ll get.

A thoroughly disturbing poster from 1926
Now the film… Directed by H K Breslauer this is often described as an Austrian expressionist film and yet, short of one great scene when an antisemitic parliamentary representative Bernard (Hans Moser) is jailed in a room full of twisted shadows and stars of David, it’s not going to pass Lotte Eisner’s test. It is very expressive and directed with skill but it’s tone – in sharp contrast to the score – is lighter given the expectation that the scenes in the film would not come to pass (although in this respect the film is more optimistic than the book).

Utopia is suffering from a devalued currency and post-war economic strife and new chancellor, Dr. Schwerdtfeger (Eugen Neufeld) responds to the ease as many voters blame Jews the hardship with their intelligence and general association with finance and the “arts” (what reasons do you need?). Gradually he accepts the unthinkable and passes a law banning Jews who must leave the country by 25th December – and a Happy Christmas to you too.

This impacts two lovers, Lotte (Anny Milety) who is the daughter of one of the members of the assembly who approves the law, and a Jewish artist Leo Strakosch (Johannes Riemann). She will never be able to see him as strict laws define who is and who isn’t a Jew.

A rich American anti-Semite (goodness me…) helps give the economy a lift and for a while, things improve for the Christians at least… but soon Utopia suffers as other countries refuse to do business with them and then, shock horror, their Yankee benefactor marries a rich Jewish girl.

At the same time the cultural life of Utopia suffers without the creativity of the Jews, their plays and their music whilst café become beer halls and a culturally-impoverished society becomes an intoxicated one.

As hyper-inflation kicks in – an all-too familiar experience – jobs are hard to get and Utopia is heading for disaster. Luckily, Leo, who has snuck back into the country disguised as a Frenchman, helps to organise counter propaganda to get his people back.

There’s a sardonic laugh from the Brits as a title card reveals they need a two-thirds “super-majority” to change to constitution in order to allow the Jews back – imagine that Mr Cameron?! There’s just one man in the way and Leo has a plan to deal with the troublesome Councillor Bernard…

City Without Jews (1924) on its own merits is a well-made film with good comedy moments and an excellent cast but in combination with Olga Neuwirth music it became something else indeed. The process of watching silent film normally involves re-connection with the sensibilities of the time and yet this performance did not allow that and who am I to say that, this time at least, that wasn’t exactly the right thing to do.

Whatever Albert Camus said about all art being an attempt to reconnect with those things that first “moved you”, sometimes its purpose is to agitate and to discomfort and to make you think. In which case job done.

A tip of the hat to the PHACE Ensemble as conducted by Nacho de Paz who were fascinating to watch at work.

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