The city below the city
“I’m not staying for longer than two months,” said Michi, with absolute certainty, when he started working as a sewer technician in Vienna. But that was 30 years ago. And he has been working in Vienna’s ‘underworld’ ever since. Nowadays, between May and October he mainly gives tours to visitors looking to follow in the footsteps of The Third Man. The most famous scenes from the film – penicillin smuggler Harry Lime’s (Orson Welles) attempts to flee his pursuers – were filmed here. 70 years ago – on August 31, 1949 – the film premiered in London. It immortalized Vienna. Although this classic of the silver screen focused on the dark, corrupt post-war city and its soft underbelly instead of the usual imperial splendor, it took audiences by storm all over the world. The Third Man shared an authentic picture of a broken city after the Second World War. It shows a side to Prater other than all the fun and enjoyment, and the sewer system as a city below the city, where criminal elements lurked alongside those who lost out as the city got back on its feet. It painted a picture of the real Vienna of the time. The Third Man is still a source of inspiration for directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh. In 1951 it won an Oscar. And the British Film Institute named it the best British film of all time in 1999. The Burgkino cinema on the Ringstrasse shows the original English version of the film several times a week.
Michi knows the film, but reveals: “The people that come on these tours are actually more interested in what the sewer workers do.” We see how difficult life is in subterranean Vienna the moment we start to head below ground. Even at the top step there’s no getting away from it: it stinks down there. “You soon get used to the smell. As long as everything keeps moving, then the stench is bearable,” Michi says on the way down. But the worst thing down here is the little creatures: “If you are a foot deep in effluent and grit and then a rat runs towards you, it’s really not funny.”
In the meantime we have made it to the first chamber. The water gushes past us. It was here that the music video for Falco’s smash hit Jeanny was filmed. Michi explains what working on the sewers is all about. That the 50,000 lids in Vienna are only 60 x 60 cm, for example. “The best motivation to stay slim,” he jokes. Cables line the walls: fiber optic lines owned by Austrian telephone companies. This state-of-the-art technology on the old walls down here ensures that everything runs seamlessly above the surface.
Too smelly for Orson Welles
The Viennese sewer network is 2,500 kilometers long. Every day, half a billion liters of waste water flow through this subterranean labyrinth on its way to the treatment plant in Simmering, which is built at the city’s lowest point. “Sewer workers work up to 25 meters below ground,” explains Michi as we reach the most important space on the Third Man Tour. It was here that all the scenes for The Third Man were shot. “Really all of them?” we ask ourselves – and Michi. There isn’t much space here. – “Thanks to clever camera angles and editing techniques, the chase scene makes it look like Harry Lime was charging through half of the sewer network,” explains Michi. Talking of Harry Lime: the actor Orson Welles only spent a very short time down here. For a few shots. He couldn’t bear the smell. All of the other scenes in the sewer system that he features in were filmed in a studio in London. The rest of the work fell to a double who had to endure the foul smelling sewers in his stead.
Scenes from the film are projected on the wall. Even though the wastewater is still rushing past below, you almost feel like you are in a cinema. Dull thuds keep breaking our concentration: the sound of cars driving over the drain lids. A reminder that life is carrying on as normal above.
After the next space, which smells of beer whenever the Ottakringer brewery washes out its vats, we land at the river Wien. A huge vaulted dome covers the city’s river over a stretch of about two kilometers. It no longer stinks. Michi explains: “When it rains, a giant tank deep beneath the river picks up everything that the normal system cannot cope with. You can see that from the clearness of the water.” The Third Man tour usually ends here, for reasons Michi explains: “When it rains in the Vienna Woods, it is extremely dangerous here. The level of the water in the river Wien rises so quickly that you have to leave immediately.”
Third Man Museum
We are in luck, Vienna is bathed in sunshine. Which means that we have a rare opportunity to go a little farther upstream with the sewer workers. There is graffiti on the walls. A few hundred meters along and it’s time to go back up to the surface. When Michi opens the door at the end of the staircase, we (and the others) have trouble believing our eyes. We are in the courtyard of a Naschmarkt restaurant. It is only now that we realize exactly how far we have gone from Karlsplatz. Below ground, it is easy to lose all sense of time and space. Talking of losing things: “An incredible number of smartphones that people drop down the toilet end up with us in the sewers,” Michi reveals.
There is a simple reason why we come back into the daylight on Naschmarkt: the Third Man Museum is just around the corner. Operators Gerhard Strassgschwandtner and Karin Höfler want to show us the museum, which brings the history of the movie and post-war Vienna to life in an exhibition. It is clear that the museum, which attracts visitors from all over the world, was put together with the passion and attention to detail of real enthusiasts. “It is the only museum in the world to be exclusively dedicated to a single film,” notes Strassgschwandtner. Höfler adds: “Highlights in the 3,000-plus piece collection include cameras, scripts, cinema posters and of course the film zither that the legendary score by Anton Karas was played on.” And you can see that both of them are committed heart and soul.
The same applies to Michi. His early aversion to the job has long since evaporated. For many reasons, including “because the camaraderie among all my colleagues down here is unique,” he says. And it’s been that way for 30 years and counting.
Text: Robert Seydel
Third Man Tour (3. Mann Tour)Karlsplatz/Girardipark (vis-à-vis Café Museum)
Third Man Museum (Dritte Mann Museum)Pressgasse 25