Thoughts on a few seconds of The Third Man

Interesting bit in The Third Man that few probably pick upon anymore…after Holley Martins (Joseph Cotten) first meets Baron Kurtz, they go walking down the sidewalk together. Kurtz has vaguely Mediterranean features and it dawned on me that the character might be Jewish. It had never occurred to me before because Austria had been thoroughly Judenrein by an especially efficient Nazi administration. Apparently this Kurtz would have been one of those who had either survived the death camps or been in hiding in Vienna for six long years. Now he was making his living in a vaguely Fagin sort of way, Graham Greene falling back on an old and cringeworthy English literary trope. Then again, perhaps I was imagining all this. Perhaps Kurtz represented some sort of Austro-Hungarian Balkan-Mediterranean blend. After all the Hapsburg empire, though officially German speaking (outside of Hungary, but that’s another story), had been a swirl of ethnicities, never been even close to the Germanic stereotype. If you listen you can even hear bits of Italian in the German dialogue, unthinkable in Berlin. Now we watch Baron Kurtz and the Joseph Cotten character walk down the street. An Austrian policeman on his beat walks toward them, still with a Gestapo-ish hint of a Hitler mustache. The cop pays no attention to either of them, and Holley, with his American film noir disrespect for cops (I hate coppers, as Cagney seemed to always say), pays no attention to the cop. Kurtz does, however. He looks up, sees the cop, and with the alacrity of experience steps out into the street. The cop passes and Kurtz gets back on the sidewalk. What might be taken for a little common sense courtesy had, I’m sure, a much darker meaning. Nazi law forbade Jews to walk on sidewalks. Jews on sidewalks were beaten. In Riga they were killed on the spot. I saw that microcosmic scene within a scene, those few steps, and knew that Kurtz was Jewish. Sometimes a few seconds of film illuminate vast crimes and unspeakable tragedies, throwing shadows you never noticed before.

Originally posted on in 2018