By Katharina Ecker
Katharina Ecker is a former intern with the Austrian Press & Information Service in Washington, D.C. and is currently completing a graduate degree at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna.
As a big fan of The Third Man I am somewhat disappointed not to be able to call it a genuinely Austrian film. The screenplay was written by the British novelist Graham Greene. Another Englishman, Carol Reed, served as the director and producer of the film, which not only won the Grand Prix at Cannes 1949 but also an Oscar for Best Camera in 1950. As far as the (main) cast is concerned, one has to look hard to discover an Austrian actor (my favorite one is Herbert Halbik as the adorable, little "he-is-the-murderer Hansel"). The two main characters of the film, Holly Martins and the "third man" Harry Lime, are played by two Americans: Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles respectively.
Yet, one might say that the real protagonist is neither one of the two. It is rather the city in which the story takes place: the disturbing but still beautiful post-world-war-two Vienna. Its ruins and rubble powerfully staged through tilted frames, oppressive black shadows and dull reverb serve as the symbolic backdrop for this drama dealing not only with the physical but also the moral destruction that was brought along by the horrors of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that it is the city of Vienna, which many of the fans of the cult film visit in order to follow in the footsteps of Holly Martins, searching to uncover the mystery surrounding the death of his old friend Harry Lime. Enthusiasts can go for a walk through the city and have a look at key film locations such as the Josephsplatz, the site of Lime’s alleged death, the Mölker Bastei or the Café Mozart. Even a tour of the sewers of the famous final pursuit scene is possible (Orson Welles famously never set foot in them himself, as he refused to shoot on location). As I rather share Mr. Welles’s viewpoint on the appeal of Vienna’s canalization system, I decide to instead pay a visit to The Third Man Museum in Vienna’s 4th district.
The German phrase "klein aber fein" (small but nice) certainly applies to this hidden jewel of Austrian museums’ culture. In thirteen rooms the visitor can see over 2000 original exhibits and documents. Most rooms display a rich collection of memorabilia surrounding the movie itself. Authentic posters from different countries, lobby cards that were used in cinema showcases, stills, autographs and snapshots are only a small part of the collection of treasures that can be found here. Especially remarkable is that the collection also includes original film scripts with annotations of the actors as well as, to my delight, "Little Hansel's" beret that the actor himself donated to the museum.
Another integral element of the film that is deeply Austrian also has an important place in the collection of the Third Man Museum: the film music. Some of Anton Karas’ zither songs have become so iconic that most people know them, even if they have never even watched The Third Man. The museum presents an astounding collection of over 250 Cover versions of the famous The Harry Lime Theme along with the original zither used by Mr. Karas to record the music, which subsequently made the typically Austrian instrument world famous.
A second interesting part of the exhibition focuses on the background of post-World War Two Vienna. Authentic documents such as news paper articles, letters, official papers and photographs help the visitor to better understand the city, its history and its meaning for The Third Man.
Lastly, the exhibition also features glimpses of The Third Man’s reputation abroad. A special exhibition reflects on the film’s popularity in Japan, where it was even honored with the title of "Best Foreign Film of All Time." Karas' music enjoys great fame and is sometimes even considered to be in line with Austrian composers such as Mozart or Beethoven. That the movie has also become an integral part of "popular culture" can be seen by the fact that the Japanese beer brewery Ebisu has been using The Harry Lime Theme for their commercials for years. The theme song can also be heard in certain train stations across Japan whenever a train arrives or departs.
Perhaps the most special part of the exhibition is the screening of key scenes of the movie with an authentic cinema projector, which was used in Viennese cinemas during the time the movie premiered. I am immediately taken in by the charm of the slightly flickering pictures which tie in perfectly with the charm and lugubrious style of the film noir. “A movie like The Third Man has to be seen in a theater, not at home. Otherwise you do not concentrate well enough on the excellent dialogues and the amazing photography”, Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, the founder of the museum, later explains to me.
Talking to him and his wife Karin Höfler, I find out that the entire collection was curated by them. A Third Man-enthusiast Mr. Strassgschwandtner started out as an eager collector of memorabilia in the early 1990s and eventually decided to present his impressive collection to the public in 2005. The personal involvement and enthusiasm that flowed into this project is perhaps what makes the museum so convincing and full of ‘soul’ and character. I am therefore even more excited to get an opportunity to ask Mr. Strassgschwandtner a few questions about the museum.
Mr. Strassgschwandtner, 13 years after the opening of your museum it is becoming increasingly popular and was recently even featured in an article in The Washington Post. – Do you still remember how it all started? When did you watch The Third Man for the first time?
Yes, I do remember, I must have been around 17, or 18 years old. It did not rock my world, but then again I only saw the (badly synchronized) German version.
How did you then get the idea of actually opening a museum? After all, this is not something people do every day?
Since I am also a tour guide in Vienna, many American and British visitors asked me about The Third Man – where it was shot and so on. In 1996, I bought three posters in Queens, N.Y. That was really the beginning. I had experience as a collector and I am luckily quite good at setting up networks, which helped me a lot.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in putting together the exhibition?
The biggest challenge was certainly to convince my wife Karin of the fact that this is a good idea. That was not easy at all! But now she is the heart and the soul of this project. I am very happy, that we could create this museum all by ourselves. No subsidies, no outsourcing. That makes us completely independent and gives us the energy that is required to start and run the thing.
Do you feel people are still enthusiastic about The Third Man today - 65 years after its release? Who are those people that come to visit the museum and want to find out more about it?
Today, the Third Man is considered a cult movie. That explains why the majority of our visitors are in their 30s and 40s. They visit mainly from the US, the UK and Germany. Fewer come from Spain, Italy and Scandinavian countries. And only very few come from Austria/Vienna.