The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The Café Mozart and The Third Man


Along the Ring, not far from the Opera, is the Burg Kino, one of the cinemas for English speakers in Vienna. Whatever other films are on, there is usually an afternoon projection of The Third Man (1949), set in Vienna after the war. The script is by one of the great British novelists of the twentieth century, Graham Greene.

The summer terrace of the Cafe Mozart from the Albertina.

Seeing the film in present-day Vienna is an experience in itself. Walking around the astonishingly clean city, in which the smallest crack on a building brings a team of workers that start painting and polishing in an almost obsessive manner, it is hard to imagine the badly bombed Vienna after the war. Even more unlikely seems the idea that such a place could have been chosen as a metaphor for the fallen human condition. There is a memorable scene in the film, in which Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, stands at the top of Wheel in the Prater and muses about the insignificance of human life (other people’s lives, not his): “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”. And what is probably the most famous quote: “in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce – the cuckoo clock.”

It is said that Graham Greene wrote the script for The Third Man, in large part, in the Café Mozart, a lavish coffee-house, overlooking the Albertina (one of the museums in Vienna), on the back of the Opera. One of the episodes, in fact, features the street before the coffee-house. There is some irony when one imagines Graham Greene, a writer with a keen sense of tragedy and despair, who attempted to commit suicide (several times, in fact), sitting in this aristocratic, feel-good setting and contemplating the depths of human depravity.

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