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Still Dots #92

Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four […]

Second #5632, 94:02, Image © Studio Canal

Once again, we’re treated to an image that The Third Man has already made familiar: rubble, devastation, barrenness, the ravages of war. As Jeremy noted on Tuesday, the film, “shot on location in Vienna, is almost documentary in nature, its intent to show the scars and pockmarks that plague Vienna’s post-war streets.” The preceding four minutes of screen time have particularly emphasized this viscerally real depiction of a wartorn city: the looming shadows that seep over the cobblestone streets (glazed, in classical film noir fashion, with a layer of water to accentuate darkness and light), the chipped-away brick facades of Vienna’s wounded buildings, the ghostly fog that subsumes the city’s diagonally-tilted passageways — this is a place (a space and time) that suddenly seems tactile, realer than real. (The symbolic connotations of black-and-white filmmaking and The Third Man‘s location shooting, so markedly different from the studio sets of most narrative films of the time, help to explain how a colorless, boldly stylized portrayal of Vienna can somehow transcend the reality of actually being there.) The gaping wound staring back at us in Still Dots 92 is a prominent scar bestowed by World War II, an unavoidable reminder of Vienna’s (and Austria’s) turbulent recent history. Within the concrete flesh of this wound, another intrigue plays out at a microcosmic level: betrayal, inhumanity, and greed performed as a three-act play, its characters oblivious to the lessons that the war should have taught them (and which should be manifestly obvious from the terrain over which they’re currently scuttling).

The pair of British MPs who can barely be seen in the upper-right hand corner of today’s frame reveal that this is not only a documentary-like portrait of postwar Vienna: it’s also the initiation of a frenzied chase that will comprise The Third Man‘s climax. At the Cafe Marc Aurel, the three main characters in our drama have congregated: Anna, informed by Baron Kurtz that Holly is cooperating with the police to trap Harry Lime, has burst into the otherwise abandoned cafe and harshly chastised Holly for this betrayal. It is in the midst of her diatribe (actually, ironically, when Anna claims that Harry would never be foolish enough to fall for this trap) that Mr. Lime himself sneaks in through the backdoor. Though he must be aware of the dangerous possibility that Holly is conspiring to arrest him, Harry is still taken aback by Anna’s closing words: “You must feel very proud to be a police informer.”

On Tuesday, Jeremy noted that Harry and Holly’s familiar roles have suddenly been upended: Holly is now the duplicitous betrayer, Harry the entrapped sucker. Before we can feel too much sympathy for Harry, though, the movie reminds us of Mr. Lime’s villainy and of the moral rift between the two men: with subdued fury, Harry pulls a gun, points it in Holly’s general direction, and brusquely motions for Anna to move out of the way. The obvious implication is that Harry, now certain of Holly’s betrayal, intends to murder his onetime best friend (whereas we may still believe, naively perhaps, that Holly only wants Harry to be arrested, not killed). Harry takes one decisive step towards Holly, his jaw set in stoic resolve, yet (luckily for Holly) it is at this moment that Sergeant Paine throws open the front door. Making the only sensible decision he can in this predicament, Harry tucks tail and runs, scrambling down the mountain of rubble that we see in today’s still.

Harry’s interjection into this scene was commenced (if we recall from Still Dots 91) by a brief pan and tracking shot that mimics Harry’s visual perusal of the setting. That brief dolly towards the Cafe Marc Aurel from Harry’s perspective is significant: Jeremy hypothesized that Mr. Lime “truly is one of the phantoms occupying this city of ghosts, and this track is the beginning of his gentle departure from gravity’s bounds.” If this unmooring of the laws of gravity and physics commence with this tracking shot, where does Harry’s movement lead us, figuratively and literally? Towards his covert hiding place (and maybe even his natural habitat), of course: the sewers. The actual tracking shot from Still Dots 91 figuratively continues during this chase scene to a subterranean realm: the site of the uncanny, the once-exposed now made visible, towards hell itself. Like the disturbing and magisterial tracking shot from Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies above, Harry’s phantasmic movements bring us unstoppably closer to a hellish realm of death and inhumanity. The fact that the camera movement in Werckmeister Harmonies (like that in much of Tarr’s latter-day filmmaking) moves at a glacial pace only makes its ghostly march towards cruelty that much more disturbing: with the taunting inevitability of a nightmare, we approach the barbaric. Harry’s sudden descent into the Viennese sewers plays out with similarly awful immanence: from the beginning (when Holly flew across the Atlantic to meet his friend and instead met his coffin), their reunion was destined to lead to this cavernous realm.

The realm of the unconscious: a libidinous subterranean cellar in “Underground.” Image © New Yorker Films.

Holly first learned of Harry’s death from the kindly porter whose own murder Holly indirectly caused: arriving at Harry’s apartment building, Holly is eerily told by the porter that Harry is “already in hell” (while he gestures upwards towards the sky) “or in heaven” (while he points downwards to…the sewers?). Now, about an hour later in screen time, the porter’s catachresis comes full circle, as Harry absconds to the “heaven” in which he’s been hiding out, a throng of British MPs (and Holly) in hot pursuit. The Freudian undercurrents of Harry’s hideout are unavoidable: if the subterranean unconscious is formed by repression, then Harry Lime functions as the Id personified, all of humanity’s inclinations towards self-preservation, megalomania, pleasure and amorality in one combustible package. Holly and the British military’s descent into the sewers, then, entails a penetration into the unconscious itself. Similarly, in Emir Kusturica’s bawdy political allegory Underground, a Communist arms dealer named Marko stows away an entire population in his grandfather’s cellar, convincing his “people” that World War II is raging above them for decades on end (the film is split into three parts — “War,” “Cold War,” and “War” — thus suggesting, not unlike The Third Man, that World War II set in motion a cycle of violence that raged throughout the twentieth century). Marko and his extravagant best friend Blacky, black-market racketeers whose own devious behavior reflects the ongoing atrocities of war, could have been influenced by Harry Lime: embodiments of the Id, they seem to imprison a mini-civilization in their own unconscious, even adding hours to each day so their subjects believe that less time has passed. The cellar and the sewer in Underground and The Third Man thus act as parallel spaces, catacombs where the extravagances of the repressed play out, inhabited by similarly unprincipled men.

But we’re not quite in the sewers yet: for the moment, we’re still above ground, in a Vienna that only barely contains the horrors lingering beneath its cobblestone surface. As Harry Lime races through the canted angles of the streets, dogs bark in the distance, whistles and sirens can be heard, and shadows of soldiers wielding submachine guns dance over the walls. These scenes could be taking place in April 1945, when the Soviets besieged German forces in the so-called Vienna Offensive. The sights and sounds of war — especially in the central district of Vienna, where the current scene was shot and wherein the four national powers occupying Vienna after the war (Britain, the United States, France, and Russia)  rotated monthly control — would be omnipresent until May 1955, when the Austrian State Treaty was signed. Until then, as various national powers traded control over the Austrian capital, it must have seemed to the Viennese populace (as they labored to clear rubble and rebuild their city) that war truly was neverending. It is through this environment that the British military is currently pursuing Harry Lime, and it is beneath this territory that Harry and Holly’s personal war will soon come to an end.

Vienna’s occupying forces from 1945 to 1955. The gray district in the center is the International Zone, in which the four powers would rotate monthly control, and in which Still Dots 92 was shot.

Over the absolute length of one year — two times per week — Still Dots will grab a frame every 62 seconds of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. This project will run until December 2012, when we finish at second 6324For a complete archive of the project, click here. For an introduction to the project, click here.