Jul 2006 Journal

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Vienna, City of Dreams

If Omar Sharif's camel ride into stardom in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the cinema's longest arrival sequence, Alida Valli's slow walk past Joseph Cotten out of Vienna's Zentralfriedhof at the end of Carol Reed's 1949 masterpiece The Third Man is its longest and most memorable departure. Unlike the bombastic entry of Lean's Arab warrior prince, the exit of Anna Schmidt, Reed's gangster's moll, carries real moral weight, as she rejects the decent mediocrity offered by Holly Martins (Cotten) and returns to a profoundly corrupted city.

Valli's recent death brings back memories of Vienna in the post-war, post-Nazi years, before the city became prosperous and turned its historical legacy into a marzipan theme park of harmless Hapsburgs like soppy Sisi and love-struck Rudolph, hero of what has been trivialised into the interminable soap opera of Mayerling. No such escape from history into bowdlerised pastiche is possible when viewing The Third Man. Valli's character, Harry Lime's girlfriend Anna, exists in a moral vacuum where the only criterion is survival and the cost of one's material comfort is measured in the human misery of others, a price Lime (Orson Welles) and his like gladly pay.

They inhabit a city where the law of the jungle holds sway, after moral standards have successively been eroded by the citizens' complicity in the crimes of the Nazis, by the destruction wrought by the war on their city, and by the moral corrosion of the Allied occupation, which, however, allowed the Viennese to cast themselves as passive victims, conveniently veiling their Nazi past. The savagery to which near-starvation and destitution have reduced the city's inhabitants is captured in the graphic sequence of night-time scenes illuminated by the headlights of the car whose driver appears to have kidnapped the Martins. (In fact, he is being driven to nothing more sinister than his lecture at a British cultural centre.) Among a series of visions from darkness, the face of a man scavenging for food amidst the city's refuse stands out, his features fixed in a bestial snarl, the ultimate image of the city's degradation.

The dream has long played a prominent part in Viennese culture. The Baroque image of life as a dream dominates Der Traum, ein Leben (Life Is a Dream), a moral fable in dramatic form by Franz Grillparzer, greatest of Austrian nineteenth-century classical dramatists, as it does Hugo von Hofmannsthal's play Der Turm (The Tower, 1925). At the popular level, the song most closely associated with Vienna is the cloying but irresistible 'Wien, Wien, nur du allein/Wirst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein' ('Vienna, Vienna, you alone will forever be the city of my dreams').

But by 1949 dream had descended into nightmare, as The Third Man vividly illustrates. Against a background of murder, black-market racketeering and power politics, in a shattered city divided into Russian and Western sectors, Harry Lime is revealed for what he is: a creature of the night who has made money by selling adulterated penicillin and has faked his own death to escape retribution for the lives he has ruined. He is first - and unforgettably - glimpsed by night, as a shaft of light from an opened window falls onto his face; he meets his end in the eternal gloom of Vienna's sewers.

Lime's famous attempt to justify his crimes to the bemused Martins - on the big wheel in the Prater amusement park - centres on the argument that great criminal regimes have produced great culture, whereas Switzerland, that model of worthy, law-abiding democracy, has produced only the cuckoo clock. Vienna provides the appropriate backdrop for Lime's regressive, anti-democratic amorality. Reduced in 1918 from its status as a great imperial capital to that of an unstable, unloved rump state, it witnessed the undermining of parliamentary rule by authoritarian forces contemptuous of popular democracy, and its abolition by Chancellor Dollfuss, who, with his successor, Schuschnigg, instituted an Austrian version of the Central European one-party state.

Once the protective barrier of democratic values had been subverted, the city fell easily to the Nazis. The ecstatic reception extended to Hitler on his triumphal return to Vienna in 1938 exploded into a veritable orgy of antisemitic violence that took a demonic delight in humiliating and tormenting defenceless Jews. Many Viennese supported the criminal Nazi regime at least passively, and they shared in the devastation - material and moral - of its defeat, emerging from the war into a world where the city's physical destruction matched its moral bankruptcy.

Defeated, occupied, starving, Vienna took refuge in the denial of its Nazi past, refusing to admit its guilt towards its former Jewish citizens. As late as 1987, a history of Vienna by Thomas Chorherr, editor-in-chief of Die Presse, no less, sought to minimise the dimensions of Viennese enthusiasm for Hitler by arguing that almost as many people had turned out when Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Vienna in 1954 as had greeted the Führer in March 1938! But, as Harry Lime haunted the city from the subterranean labyrinth of the sewers, so the hidden secrets of the past continued to provide a dark undercurrent to the golden Viennese dream.
Anthony Grenville

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