One of my favourite films is set in this city: the 1949 The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed. Graham Greene’s story and screenplay, the music by Anton Karas and the cinematography by Robert Krasker combine with distinct and vivid performances by the four lead actors: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. Together they project a haunting story of the black market in Allied-occupied post-war Vienna and the classic themes of loyalty, betrayal, love and … balloons… not to mention cuckoo clocks…
I recall seeing some of the places portrayed in Reed’s film. Still, the film’s landscapes loom as large in my mind as my memories of the city: indeed they are entwined together in my prosthetic memories of Vienna. As well as the railway station, police station, Sacher Hotel, Cafe Mozart, Harry’s apartment, Anna’s apartment and most notably the suspension bridge and the enduring ferris wheel scene, it is the night-time street scenes, the ruins and the sewers which create a fabulous spectacle of film noir perfection.
Arguably no locale is more important for the story and the film than Harry Lime’s grave in the vast parkland Friedhof cemetery. I have never visited this cemetery but there is a fantastic website that explores in detail the locations of the film here. The cemetery appears at the following key moments:
- The film opens with Holly Martins attending Lime’s funeral, seeing Anna and Lime’s black market associates at his graveside and then meeting Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine.
- Having met Lime alive and well, Martins tells Calloway. The police exhume Lime’s body only to find Harbin’s, at which point Major Calloway concedes that they should have dug deeper than the grave…
- Lime’s actual funeral ends the film. The subject to a dispute between writer Greene and director Reed, the film ends unhappily, with Anna snubbing Holly. This is articulated in a striking and memorable way: following the funeral, the ending scene is the long, lingering walk of Anna past Holly down the tree-lined avenue flanked by tall gravestones.
It is difficult to surpass for the prominence of a European city cemetery in the framing and narrative of a British film. Moreover, the below-ground triple intervention – one daytime burial, one night-time exhumation, and a further daylight burial – articulate the key dimension of Lime’s identity; someone living and dead, absent and present in the story, whose identity as a murderer and a black-marketeer only reveal themselves through the physical interventions at Friedhof.
Of course there is no memorial of Lime’s featured and we are left to imagine whether any memorial was erected and who, Anna or Holly, together or separately, would visit the cemetery again.
The power of the film derives from Lime’s enduring absence and the challenge of tackling his reputation as friend and lover. Lime is thus fluctuating between living and dead, a man who is talked about, the focus of the film, the ‘third man’ and yet only briefly appears in the film himself. The film navigates his death, ‘resurrection’ through Martin’s haphazard investigation of his road accident and apparent demise, and ultimately willing execution at Martin’s hands, returning him to the grave. Throughout, Lime is an apparition, only partly apprehended. Who really knew Harry Lime? Who really understood his evil deeds? His failed ruse to evade the authorities is really a path to question what we really know of the people we call friends and lovers?
The narrative of Lime’s double-death and the focus on Lime’s grave provokes other questions about the dead victim of Lime whose graves are not featured. Where does Harbin get buried in the end? What of Lime’s child victims through selling diluted penicillin? What of the funerary fate of Sergeant Paine, played by Bernard Lee and my favourite character in the movie, who is shot by Lime?
The obsessive lingering spatially and materially on Lime and his grave reveals the tenacious power of the charismatic liar, murderer and cheat even after death and how even upon death, and following death, the layers and complexity of his character and the evil deeds he perpetrated seem unresolved. Digging the dead is here a search for an unfulfilled truth that remains elusive and fluctuating between the living characters, not fixed upon a gravestone.
This is what, for me, makes the film both compelling and infuriating. It also makes the film intriguing to me as an archaeologist. All those graves and memorials at Friedhof in the background to the cemetery scenes attempt to memorialise individual and family reputations and social identities. Yet while Harry Lime gets us comeuppance in a sense, but one still feels he is not ‘put to rest’ in the cemetery. Even from his second grave, he seems to still be laughing at Calloway, Holly and Anna and through his death he escapes trial and execution.
Perhaps Harry Lime laughs at us all from beyond the grave and reveals the madness of our respect, trust and affinity to those who seem pleasant and good on the surface. Perhaps all the dead laugh at us in our attempts to ‘know’ the true characters of those buried and memorialised? I certainly think Otzi, Lindow Man and Richard III would be laughing… As an archaeologist, thinking about the Third Man and thinking about Harry Lime’s grave makes me wonder how little we can ever learn about the dead? How do we dig deeper than the grave?
Part of the answer is to shift the focus from what people were, to what they became through burial and material commemoration. That is where I feel mortuary archaeology can begin to shed more light on past dialogues between the living and the dead and where the laughter of the dead can be drowned out, or at least complemented, by other past voices – mourners, communities and organisations – revealed in the material record of past mortuary practices.
As for digging up truth? We are always digging up lies, it depends on whether we want to admit it, engage with it, and explore whose lie we are digging…