The Third Man: Film to Museum in Vienna

The Third Man: Film to Museum in Vienna

VIENNA —When a motion picture — in this case “The Third Man”— is regarded by critics and its admirers as a museum piece, an obvious challenge is how to build a museum around it.

It was a challenge that Gerhard Strassgschwandtner welcomed. Situated among 15 small rooms on a rather nondescript street in central Vienna — the city that gave birth, through Graham Greene’s imagination, to fictional characters such as Harry Lime and Holly Martins — there resides a multimedia homage to the actors, the writer, the director, the composer and all the various bits and pieces that contributed to the whole.   

The 3rd Man Museum is the result of Strassgschwandtner’s obsession, conviction and his talent for persuasion: to convince his wife, Karin Hofler, that the whole thing was worth the investment of time, effort, and, of course, money.

“So, I’m on and off a tour guide here,” said Strassgschwandtner, who is 59, during a visit recently. “In the ’90s, a lot of British and Americans asked me about the movie, and I had to say ‘Sorry, I’m from Vienna, and people here didn’t want to see that after the war.’” Finally, he saw the film for the first time in 1996. “I was hooked by the cinematography, the angles, the contrast.” Not to mention the story.

A collector at heart, Strassgschwandtner began to combine his interest in Vienna before and after World War II with the movie, which was filmed in 1948 and premiered in London the next year. He began assembling all manner of documents, images, signed photos, film clips, letters and the like (“All originals!” he insists). Eventually, he added a monstrous Ernemann projector built in the ’30s, and a loop of film to run a clip from the black-and-white film.

“In 2005, I thought, I really have to make something of the incredible material I had gathered,” he said. He and Karin rented a building on Pressgasse, not far from Vienna’s famous Ring, and the museum opened, and has been evolving ever since.

Entrance to the 3rd Man Museum (Dritte Mann Museum) in Vienna, Austria

Without much press attention, marketing or advertising — the private museum is only open formally on Saturdays, or by appointment, and Strassgschwandtner says he receives no sponsorship money — it attracted visitors who regarded “The Third Man” with the affection that music lovers shower on a piece of classic (or classical) music: an experience to be revisited, over and over, with new details revealed with each hearing, or, in this case, viewing.

What it did not attract was the Viennese.

Past the posters and lobby cards is an exhibit on Vienna during and after the war. There are newspaper cuttings from the ’30s and ’40s, chronicling the physical destruction of the city, the black market that grew out of scarce food and petrol supplies, and letters from people trying to locate missing loved ones. It’s a sort of museum within the museum. 

“This film says so much about Vienna and Austria on so many levels, and in the exhibition, we try to reflect that,” says Strassgschwandtner. “Here in Vienna is very well developed the art of forgetting. Of course, there is a pretty side to this city, but there is another side, too, and visitors should broaden their perceptions. I don’t want to make judgments — I let the film and all the things I have gathered here speak for themselves.”

But, while the real-world exhibits are compelling, they are still the co-stars. The main attractions here are Orson Welles the actor, Greene the writer, Robert Krasker the photographer, and, in no small measure, the zither of Anton Karas. 

Prominently displayed in one of the museum’s rooms is the original zither that the musician used to compose the film’s score. Director Carol Reed discovered Karas at a party where he was serenading the film’s crew. He decided against an orchestral score, instead hired Karas and his haunting stringed instrument. The decision, according to Strassgschwandtner, eventually made Karas famous and rich. Some years later, the Beatles recorded the theme.

Greene, the invisible but inescapable force behind the film’s script, is another, perhaps more relevant, hero. Dozens of copies of his “Third Man” novella, in a variety of languages, decorate an entire wall in one of the rooms. Another montage displays headlines noting the author’s death from leukemia at age 86 in 1991. There’s a photo of Greene’s tombstone; it might be an over-the-top display of sentimentality, but seems fitting in this place. “My wife for my birthday one year flew me to Vevey in Switzerland to visit his [Greene’s] burial site,” he said

Shop window at the 3rd Man Museum

For the prospective visitor not steeped in the cult and culture of the film, a further bit of background is on order.

The germ of the idea came in 1948 from British film producer Sir Alexander Korda, who wanted to capture the postwar fallout in some bombed-out European city. He commissioned Reed to direct the film, and Greene to write the screenplay. The author straightaway was off to war-ravaged Vienna, then occupied by the Four Powers: France, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviets. He was fascinated by the black-market atmosphere, the desperation of the population, the political intrigue that would shape the city as it devolved toward the West.

Ironically, the two main characters in the movie are Americans: Joseph Cotton as Martins, an easygoing pulp-fiction writer of Westerns and Orson Welles as Lime, the complex racketeer and Cotton’s boyhood pal, who markets stolen, watered-down penicillin to hospitals, with horrific results (the filmmakers initially had considered Cary Grant and Noel Coward for the roles). The combination of spiffy, stylistic dialogue, the stunning film noir photography — deep contrasts in black and white, the camera held at odd angles — and the low-key acting make for a delicious cinematic soufflé.

Speaking of soufflés …. there remain the gastronomic and cultural delights of Vienna for tourists: the monumental architecture, the ornate State Opera, the Art Nouveau splendors, the spectacular cafes like the Schwarzenberg and Demel. 

But, for a deeper dive into Third Mania, there is the giant Ferris wheel, or Prater, which has a star turn in the movie, and the Zetralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) in Simmering — which can be seen at the beginning and end of the film.  

And then there are the sewers.

The city offers tours of the underground water system that figures so crucially in the late scenes of the film, when Lime/Welles is chased by the police, eventually cornered, and shot to death by his best friend.  Welles refused to spend time in the real sewers, complaining of “filthy” conditions, so they were recreated at a studio in Britain.

These days, visitors can explore the real thing, which are somewhat more sanitary than they were 70 years ago.

Of course, that’s another story.

The 3rd Man Museum is open to visitors on Saturdays from 2-6 p.m., and by appointment. It is located at Pressgasse 25.

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