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Exploring Vienna s dark past
Scenes from The Third Man are projected on to a wall on the Vienna Sewer Tour / Picture: Supplied

At the climax of the 1949 classic film noir The Third Man, the villain Harry Lime — played by Orson Wells — is chased through the sewers of postwar Vienna, the shadows and echoes bouncing through the tunnels as the fugitive dodges his pursuers.

It’s one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history and here I am, in Vienna, about to enter the very same sewer where it was filmed, only to discover the whole thing is not quite as it seems.

For, I am being told, the scene was filmed not in an actual Viennese sewer — the pipes are far too small to accommodate a film crew — but in the much larger interconnected tunnels covering a river and the overflow system. It’s a matter of semantics, I guess, but I can’t help but feel that a massive drain seems a less evocative locale than a sewer, with all of its associations with filth and contamination.

The man cheerfully shattering my illusions is Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, a local tour guide who has been showing us around Vienna. Something of a Third Man enthusiast, he runs one of the city’s quirkier attractions, The Third Man Museum — more on which later.

Vienna’s sewer authority has been running hour-long tours of these tunnels since 2009 and apparently they’ve proved particularly popular with locals keen to see another side to their city. Each tour is led by a sewer worker, in our case the supremely composed Christian, who is stoic in the face of our collective desire to photograph him from all angles in his fetching uniform of grey overalls and heavy rubber boots.

After donning hairnets and helmets with head torches attached to the front, we are lead down a spiral brick staircase into the tunnels. I can hear running water in the distance and it is, as expected, a bit whiffy.

In the tunnels, Christian shows excerpts of The Third Man, projected on the wall, and plays audio information about the filming process and the sewer system itself. Christian doesn’t speak English, but Gerhard is able to tell us about the day-to-day tasks undertaken by workers such as Christian, which sound about as appealing as you’d expect. It is little wonder that he enjoys the occasional reprieve of leading these tours.

Eventually we come into a huge tunnel, which covers the river. It’s but a trickle today but can swell up to 2m in only 20 minutes during heavy rain. It is cold here but the smell has gone, so we pause to ask Christian some more questions about his life underground, with Gerhard translating.

He tells us he has been working in the sewers since 1985. It’s a well-paid role, in line with the unpleasant nature of the job — there’s some talk of “clearing blockages” which makes me squirm — and its hazards. His heavy boots have metal in the soles to protect against discarded needles and all workers are checked twice each year for diseases such as hepatitis. They need a strong back, too, as much of the day is spent hunched over in tunnels not much more than a metre high.

Back on the surface, we bid farewell to Christian and walk via the Naschmarkt — where stalls selling Vietnamese and Turkish specialties attest to Vienna’s increasingly multicultural citizenry — to Gerhard’s The Third Man Museum.

A brief synopsis of the movie’s plot is timely at this point. Written by Graham Greene and directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man is set in the strained atmosphere of post-World War II 2 Vienna when the city was occupied by Allied forces, Austria having been on the losing side of the conflict. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulp fiction, comes to the city following the offer of a job from his childhood friend, Harry Lime, but arrives to find Harry has been killed in a car accident. Holly is suspicious and, with the help of Harry’s girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli), begins to investigate, becoming embroiled in a shadowy world of black-market racketeers and political intrigue.

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award in 1950, the film spawned a host of spin-offs, including radio plays and a TV series. Its distinctive, haunting theme music, composed for the zither by a previously unknown local musician called Anton Karas, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the US Billboard charts and was covered by everyone from the Beatles to the Band. The movie was named the best British film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute in 1999. In short, it’s worth a watch.

The film wasn’t a hit in Vienna, though, and Gerhard didn’t watch it until the 1990s, after being repeatedly asked about it by British and American tourists. A self-confessed collector, he started amassing items connected with The Third Man in 1996, when he bought three posters in New York City. The museum opened in late 2005 and currently has approximately 2300 items on display, part of an ever- growing collection.

“I have always wanted to do something that no one else had done,” Gerhard says of his motivation for the whole endeavour.

Although he says he was initially attracted to the film’s fantastic black-and-white cinematography, its ability to act as a window on history seems to be the source of its lasting appeal. The movie offers a remarkable portrait of the strained atmosphere in Vienna in the late 1940s when it was divided into quarters, each one policed by an Allied power (Britain, France, the US and the USSR), with the centre of the city under joint control. Gerhard maintains that Vienna after the war is “the main star” of the film.

As a result, the museum houses not only a remarkable and extensive collection related directly to the film — everything from memorabilia connected to the stars and various original versions of the script to an old-style film projector on which Gerhard plays a short loop of the movie — but also a large room devoted to its historical context. The latter includes a series of video interviews Gerhard has recorded with some of the museum’s elderly visitors who have a connection to Vienna at this time, including American soldiers posted in the city and Jewish people who were saved as children by the Kindertransports. Gerhard says this history is not well known in Austria — he was taught “not a word” related to World War 2 II at school — and it raises uncomfortable questions for many Austrians, primarily whether their nation was a victim of nazism, or complicit in it. Gerhard feels his country is yet to fully come to terms with all of this, and perhaps never will.

The museum is self-funded and Gerhard spends his holidays travelling to track down new objects for the collection. Sometimes, too, people donate items. One visitor gave him an envelope full of negatives of quite extraordinary photographs of Vienna in the last days of the war and the immediate aftermath, which are now on display. One of his most recent acquisitions — an unopened CARE package, one of millions of food relief parcels sent from the US to Austria and other parts of Europe after the war — was a birthday present.

Gerhard has been gradually growing the museum since it opened but says he’s reluctant to expand to the point where he would have to hire staff. “Then the heart and soul would be gone,” he says.

He had nearly 5500 visitors last year and gets by with the help of his wife who, although initially reluctant, has been won over by her husband’s contagious enthusiasm. “She’s now infected,” he says with a smile. The couple live in an apartment above the museum. Gerhard counsels: “If you ever get married, don’t marry a collector.”

We could linger for much of the day, poring over the detailed exhibits, but in time Gerhard escorts us onwards to the final stop on our Third Man itinerary, the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park.

The 65m-high Ferris wheel, known as the Riesenrad, was built in 1897 and has become an enduring symbol of the city. Damaged during World War II and later restored, it features in The Third Man as the setting for a confrontation where our hero, Holly, is nearly thrown from one of the carriages.

Today, a ride on the wheel is a rather more civilised affair and the large carriages can be hired out for special events and meals. We arrive to find ours fitted out with a beautifully set table and sit down to enjoy Austrian snacks, beer and schnapps as the wheel slowly turns.

About 20 minutes later, our first rotation complete, we pause at the base to be served heaving plates of gulasch, before the wheel continues to turn as we chat and eat.

Looking out over the amusement park, the neighbouring green space and the broad sweep of the wider city, it all seems a long way from the war-torn late 1940s — or indeed the damp and smelly surrounds of the sewer.

But they’re all facets of Vienna, just as much as the better-known palaces and pomp, and thanks to Gerhard and The Third Man, I’ve had a chance to see a little of them all.

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of the Vienna Tourist Board.

FACT FILE

Vienna sewer tours in English run at 3pm daily from Thursday to Sunday, May to October, and cost €7 ($10.70). The website also has details about other The Third Man-related activities, including walking tours and screenings of the film. www.drittemanntour.at.

The Third Man Museum is open on Saturdays 2-6pm and by appointment at other times. Entry is €7.50. Gerhard also offers personal tours of the museum for an additional cost. 3mpc.net.

Gerhard is also a licensed tour guide offering a range of tours of Vienna. His website is special-vienna.com.

A ride on the rRiesenrad costs €9 for adults. The carriages can be hired for special events. www.wienerriesenrad.at.

Hotel Sans Souci is a boutique luxury hotel in a historic building with interiors by Phillippe Starck’s design firm, yoo. Centrally located across the street from the Museums Quarter development, rooms are from €229 per night. sanssouci-wien.com.

For more information about visiting Vienna, go to wien.info/en.