Like many visitors, I arrived in Vienna armed with visions of ornate Habsburg palaces, world-class opera and high-calorie sachertorte. But while walking off torte-induced calories, I found another vision of the city in the Third Man Museum.
Cue the zither. Turn down the lights. Settle back for a tribute to Vienna’s defining film moment: a major role in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” starring Orson Welles. The 1949 film noir classic is the sole focus of this diminutive museum tucked away on a residential side street in Vienna’s Margareten neighborhood.
Here is a movie buff’s treasure trove of original film posters, costumes, props, sheet music, autographed photos and sound and film recordings. The museum attracts a small but devoted international fan base of classic film lovers – and the occasional ex-spy. Yet there’s enough here to interest any Vienna visitors who’ve had their fill of the city’s palaces and pastries.
The museum is a consuming passion of collector and local historian Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, who’s still collecting memorabilia: His latest prize is an original script from the estate of British actor Trevor Howard (Major Calloway in “The Third Man“).
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“It was OK with me if he wanted to spend all his money on the collection,” smiled Gerhard’s wife, Karin Hoefler, “but I originally refused to give up my Saturdays to help run the museum.” Protestations aside, Hoefler has pitched in wholeheartedly, designing most of the displays and publications. And yes, many of her Saturdays are spent at the museum.
And it’s a remarkable one, with 2,000 artifacts and documents thoughtfully displayed in 13 rooms. Beyond the movie, the museum may also be the best place in Vienna to learn about the dark days in the city before, during and after World War II.
It makes no effort to gloss over a subject that official Vienna has long played down: the 1938 Anschluss, or annexation, of Austria by Germany that was supported by a homegrown Austrian Nazi Party and ratified by Austrian citizens. The museum devotes relatively little space to the war itself but picks up the chronology with extensive displays on the postwar occupation by American, French, British and Russian forces. Exhibits include a plethora of occupation-era memorabilia, from ration books to CARE package food parcels.
Although Allied bombs decimated the city, modern Vienna bears few visible reminders of the war, having been rebuilt thanks in large part to massive American aid. One of the heroes portrayed in the museum is the U.S. high commissioner, Gen. Mark Clark, who recognized the strategic value of Austria, jutting as it did into the Iron Curtain of Soviet-occupied areas.
Even though he wasn’t born until 10 years after the war, Strassgschwandtner makes no secret of his gratitude for the economic lifeboat that the United States provided to his country: “Austrians got five times more benefits, per capita, from the Marshall Plan than Germans. Without help from the United States, I could have grown up in a Russian-dominated city like Prague.”
The murky and conflicted occupation period is the setting for “The Third Man.” Filming was a logistical nightmare, as the armies of four countries were encamped, each with a different role in governing Vienna. Spies and subterfuge were the order of the day, with East and West jockeying for dominance in postwar Europe. Rubble and bombed-out buildings dominated the landscape. Fittingly, the Third Man Museum is housed in a building that was heavily damaged during Allied bombing raids.
The movie, the city
The film and the city are inextricably linked – one of the reasons the Third Man Museum is a must-see. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in his 1996 list of 100 great movies: “Vienna in ‘The Third Man’ is a more particular and unmistakable place than almost any other location in the history of the movies; the action fits the city like a hand slipping on a glove.”
Museum visitors get to experience a taste of the film in a near-original setting. A short segment from the movie is shown using a gargantuan 1936-vintage Ernemann movie theater projector – the one used at the film’s Vienna debut in 1950.
It wasn’t just the film’s cinematography and acting that enthralled Ebert. As he wrote: “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action?” The music was entirely composed on a zither played by local winery musician Anton Karas. His traditional Austrian musical instrument is prominently displayed, along with an early score from the movie.
Strassgschwandtner and Hoefler have also gathered 400 recordings of the movie’s theme song, covered by artists such as Guy Lombardo and the Beatles. I listened to a half-dozen versions – more than enough to ensure that the song was stuck in my head for days.
“The Third Man” attracted a worldwide audience and achieved near-cult status in some places. The museum devotes an entire room to the film’s impact in Japan, exhibiting posters, recordings and handmade items crafted by Japanese fans since the film debuted there in 1952. Karas and his famous zither toured Japan several times and even performed for Emperor Hirohito. The movie’s theme song is still played over the loudspeakers at the Ebisu station on Tokyo’s subway.
“The Third Man” was based on a novella by Graham Greene, who was a British intelligence operative during WWII. Greene’s MI6 boss was Russian double agent Kim Philby – the infamous mole who became known in the intelligence community as “the third man.” His case reverberated at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, where Philby had served a stint as chief British liaison.
As I was leaving the museum, Strassgschwandtner introduced me to a fellow American visitor. “He came 4,400 miles just to see this museum,” the curator enthused.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I live in D.C. and work in Northern Virginia,” the man replied obliquely.
“As in Langley?” I asked.
He just smiled.