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Will “the real Vienna” please stand up?

Anne Marie Scholz’s From Fidelity to History: Film Adaptations as Cultural Events was published by Berghahn Books in April 2013. In what follows, Scholz discusses the experience of touring Vienna and seeing parts of the city made famous by The Third Man. 


The still on the cover of my book—from the 1949 British/U.S. co-production The Third Man–depicts the American Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). He’s had a few too many drinks, and has just seen his old friend Harry Lime—a friend he believed dead— disappear somewhere on the square “Am Hof” in post-WWII Vienna. He is torn between doubts over his own sanity, unrequited love for Lime’s Czech girlfriend Anna, relief that his friend may still be alive, and near certainty that Harry is mixed up in a vicious black market racket. The darkness and mysterious aura of the Vienna square reinforces the haunted expression on Holly’s face. His predicament—that of an enterprising but unwelcome American pulp fiction writer stumbling through the labyrinth of postwar Europe–is inextricably linked with the city where he finds himself.

Holly’s search for his friend in the streets and sewers of Vienna still fascinates today. “The Third Man Tour” of the major sites of the film is among the most popular attractions in Vienna, and the film is still screened regularly in local theatres. I went on this tour in 1999, the fiftieth anniversary of the film. What struck me was the contrast between the “real Vienna” of the film, and the “real Vienna” on the tour. Here were some of the historic location sites, clearly recognizable if not entirely unchanged after half a century, and yet they were so different from what I’d seen in the film that I began to wonder—if they’d filmed The Third Man in a Hollywood studio, would the contrast have seemed any starker?


Photo courtesy Johannes Innerhofer

If we compare the film still on the book cover with a recent photo of  “Am Hof”, we can see the contrast. The buildings in the background look familiar, as they are centuries old, but the 1949 film added its own props, the angel and the fountain; moreover, in the “real” Vienna there was never a kiosk as we see it over Holly Martins’s shoulder, and thus no entrance to the sewer system.  The kiosk was a prop strategically placed so as to hide the “real” statue in the background, the “Mariensäule” (Mary’s Pillar) erected in the late seventeenth century.

What to do with this contrast? It made little sense to condemn one or the other version as false, or “less original” than the other. The technical explanations of the filmmaking process shed some light, of course: lighting, perspective, props, actors etc., transform “reality” into fiction. Yet what was it that gave me the uncanny feeling the film had actually been more “real” than the place I was looking at on the tour?


I sought some answers to this question by looking at the ways The Third Man was received by audiences and critics during the early Cold War, as well as in the relationship between Graham Greene’s versions of the story and the film itself. Film publicity in Germany, for example, claimed The Third Man was ‘much more’ than just a film—it had ‘captured’ the ‘reality’ of the postwar world. In my explorations of the historical dimensions of the film’s literary “predecessor” and its reception, I discovered that one important aspect of this postwar reality had to do with the marked ambivalence of  Europeans toward the influence and presence of American popular culture. This quality is reflected, ironically, in the American Holly Martin’s expression as he ponders whether he should catch the next plane out of Vienna before he finds out more than he wants to know. His face, framed by the dark Vienna square, mirrors his own disappointed expectations as well as those of European audiences,  who were both mesmerized by and deeply suspicious of America’s role in postwar Europe.


Today, films such as The Third Man, and other movies I discuss in the book, enjoy a reputation as “film classics”, as textbook examples of a certain style of filmmaking.  For film buffs who know these movies well, a closer look at the transnational historical dynamics that went into their production and reception will shed new light on old favorites. For a younger generation of film and media viewers, used to very different visual styles and practices,  a historical perspective on both classic and more contemporary adaptations can make palpable how moving images of stories of the past intrigued audiences, and provide a jumping off point for understanding present day negotiations between media and story-telling as more than just fodder for the global media canon. Perhaps they too– if read carefully–are ‘capturing the reality’ of our post Cold War world. 


Anne-Marie Scholz holds a teaching affiliation with the University of Bremen, Germany and is currently an Adjunct Professor of American Studies at the University of Konstanz. She is also a freelance language teacher and translator. She has published in The European Journal of American Studies, Film and History, Amerikastudien/American Studies, and German History and has taught at the Universities of Bonn, Hamburg, Tübingen, Bremen, and the University of California, Irvine.