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A River Unaligned: The Danube in Film and Cold War


From its contested origins in Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, Europe’s second longest river connects ten countries and its watershed four more. Navigable along the entire route, the Danube river serves as the artery and border of a diverse geographic region, and frustrates attempts to divide Europe from non-Europe even as it facilitates the flow of transnational environmental, economic, and cultural exchange. Diversity along the Danube has long eluded stable political arrangement; nor have its peoples easily settled into the fraught category of the nation-state. The forms of the region’s political organization appear painfully transient in the sweep of history during which the river’s flow has remained a rare constant.[1]

From the Romans to the Habsburgs, Ottomans, and Soviets, the Danube has been the site of vast imperial ambitions. In the twentieth century, the river witnessed a hitherto inconceivable marriage of violence and technology during World War I. World War II brought the unimaginable. After 50 years of Cold War and the fall of Second World socialism, the river ran red once more with the fratricidal dissolution of Yugoslavia. In the early 2000s, the European Union claimed to be better suited to the diversity of the world’s smallest continent, but its brutalizing by violent nationalisms continues in the wake of refugee crises and the building of new Berlin walls; Ukraine has become the site of the twenty-first century’s new “Eastern question.”

Yet in Hölderlin’s hymn, this river “is called Ister. It lives in beauty.”[2] Johann Strauss II’s waltz “The Beautiful Blue Danube”—one of the most popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire—was chosen by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to score humanity’s conquest of the cosmos. A symbol of human achievement, the Danube has been endowed with utopian functions across languages and media. Transnational Danubian cinema has been as fascinated with what lies beneath the surface of the photogenic river as in its many reflections. Vienna, one of the Danube’s quintessential cities, was the birthplace of psychoanalysis: below the reflective surface lurk dark histories and unprocessed memories. The Romantic river, now the industrial passageway of the EU, has also served as the “dumping water” for global trash—with all the term’s ominous implications. For while it has been viewed as a metaphorical artery of civilization and an imaginary of world culture, Europe’s river is also a watery grave, as Dragan Kujundžić puts it, for the non-biodegradable.[3]

Over the course of six decades, films from The Third Man (1949) to Oxygen (2010) have pictured the Danube as the quintessential river of the Cold War.[4] Tracing the river’s imaginaries across Cold War cinema—and its revival—reveals the Danube as central to the visual poetics of European “otherness” and to recurrent dreams of a transnational future.[5] Both in turn, I would argue, lie at the beating heart of European modernism(s).

Carol Reed’s 1949 British noir The Third Man, written initially as a novella by screenwriter Graham Greene, follows pulp novelist Holly Martins to Allied-occupied Vienna in search of his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Greene and Reed based their vision on their own experiences visiting the divided city, incorporating along the way the inspired improvisations of one of the most talented actors of their time. The Third Man visualizes the start of the imminent Cold War underground, far from the recognizable landmarks of the city, setting the tone for countless cultural productions to follow.

Screen shot of The Third Man (London Films, 1949)
Fig. 1. Screen shot of The Third Man (London Films, 1949), directed by Carol Reed.

Upon arrival, Martins learns that Lime has just been killed, and moreover that his old friend had been involved in the worst kind of black marketeering. Nothing is as it seems: Martins learns that an unreported third man was spotted with the body. This unaccounted-for detail launches Martins into the wormhole of his own private investigation. While everyone warns Martins to go home, he persists in his own inquiry into the death, falling for Lime’s mistress Anna Schmidt along the way. Just as the investigating British officer convinces Martins that his friend is better left dead—producing evidence that Lime had been selling diluted antibiotics to hospitals, gruesomely killing men, women, and children for “Seventy pounds a tube”—the man himself rises vampirically out of sewers dumping into the Danube, and in the Soviet-controlled sector of town.[6] The man they had buried was an accomplice turned informer; Lime was the mysterious third man all along.

Reed’s film contrasts several conflicting codes of ethics (or their absence), most centrally in the conflict between the two misplaced Americans. Martins, a writer of Western genre fiction, imagines Vienna as the stage for a showdown between good and evil—with himself first in the role of detective and then as Anna Schmidt’s white-hatted hero. Lime represents a very different kind of American values, recognizing no higher law than personal profit. In the film’s most quoted exchange between the two men atop the Prater Wheel in the Russian sector, Martins asks Lime whether he has seen any of his victims. Lime responds:

You know, I never feel comfortable in these sort of things. Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. It's the only way you can save money nowadays.[7]

Yet there is as much slippage between ideologies in The Third Man as there is liberal use of the famed “Dutch” angles to suggest a world that has been broken apart and poorly thrown back together. (As Roger Ebert puts it: “There are fantastic oblique angles. Wide-angle lenses distort faces and locations. And the bizarre lighting makes the city into an expressionist nightmare.”)[8] While Lime and Martins clearly have a long and shared history of playing by their own rules, Lime’s descent into horrifying hypercapitalism crosses the line of maverick cowboy behavior, and paradoxically appears to have been learned on the wrong side of the river, in the Soviet sector of town, where he has been forced to hide from the (British) law. In his justification-cum-recruitment pitch to Martins, Lime attests that “nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don’t. Why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat; I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.”[9]

Lime offers a nightmare version of the mentality of the “other side,” seemingly picking out the worst from each side of the nascent Cold War—combining disregard for individual life with unchecked self-interest. Perhaps it wasn’t exposure to the Soviets that did “poor old Harry” in, but his very ability to navigate two opposing ecosystems and their incompatible moral values. Yet the perspective suggested by the film’s shifting frames also never allows viewers an easy alignment with Martins. From Anton Karas’s underminingly arch zither score (one of the most famous in film history) to Anna’s evident contempt for her would-be rescuer, The Third Man is heaped with clues that Martins fails to understand. Anna, who is from Czechoslovakia, has been living on the right side of the tracks by virtue of a forged Austrian passport from Lime. Although Lime hands over her information to the Soviets for forced repatriation in exchange for his own safe haven, Anna refuses to forget what he has done for her in the past, or to judge. In the very last scene where all three are together—Harry Lime, this time in his casket at his second and final funeral, Holly Martins and Anna Schmidt in attendance—Anna won’t even look at Martins. In her eyes, he is not only responsible for the death of her lover, but is a police informer and hypocrite.

Screen shot of The Third Man (London Films, 1949)
Fig. 2. Screen shot of The Third Man (London Films, 1949), directed by Carol Reed.

Unbeknownst to Anna, Lime’s death signals a rapprochement between the two men’s codes and the penultimate act of Martins’s sentimental education. As the police chase moves underground to the Danubian sewers and ends with a shootout, a wounded Lime motions to his friend to finish him off. The writer of Westerns and would-be Übermensch wordlessly agree that prison is no place for a real man. Yet as many essays and critical reviews as the film has inspired, next to none question that repatriation to Soviet territory is a fate worse than death for a lovely Central European. The Luciferian Lime meanwhile has been compared to Dracula: Bram Stoker’s novel picks up speed precisely when Jonathan Harker crosses the Danube into Transylvania, bringing back evil like a spreading infection when he attempts to return home.[10] Reed and Greene’s vision borrows from a rich tradition of gothic tropes to signal to viewers that while this may be postwar Vienna, the real war has only begun.

I have written elsewhere on David Barison and Daniel Ross’s experimental documentary The Ister (2004), which sets philosophical discussions of Martin Heidegger’s legacy (beginning and ending with his 1942 lecture series on Hölderlin’s hymn) against a journey upstream, from southeastern European landscapes pocked with the signs of recent wars and capitulations, to pass through sites of concentration camps and technological extermination before ending in the lush green Bavaria of the Danube river’s always-already contested origins.[11] 2004 was a watershed year for Europe: a time of NATO expansion, of dramatic European Union ascendancy if not triumph—a much-heralded turning point for a region with a history of violence. From the vantage point of 2020, The Ister already reads as a distant historical document as it follows the Danube River past Romanian celebrations over joining NATO, past the bombed bridges of the former Yugoslavia and new national parades, past the crumbling monuments of state socialism, to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria, the Walhalla Temple, Freiburg University and into Germany’s Black Forest. The optimism of those early years of the twenty-first century proved wildly unfounded.

Serbian-Austrian Goran Rebić’s Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Dunarea (2003), a kind of accidental fiction-film companion piece to The Ister, imagines the river as the lifeline and genius loci of a traumatized but healing Europe. Rebić’s film, with its buoyant intimation that the spirit of the Danube might provide new beginnings and idealized multicultural families to the river’s many orphans, reads today as of a particular fleeting moment and fantasy of Europe after the end of history.[12] Goran Rebić’s many-named film tells the story of The Danube riverboat en route to Romania from Vienna. The German captain, Franz, agrees to transport the orphaned Bruno and the coffin of his mother (Franz’s ex-wife), former Romanian Olympic swimmer Mara Popescu back to her home waters. The ship’s crew includes his Ukranian first mate, Giorgi, Serbian engineer, Nikola, and Hungarian cook, Tanja; and soon also Mathilda, a woman of color fleeing a heroin problem in Vienna, and Mircea, a Romanian cowboy who tried to make it west across the river. Along the way, some fall in love, others fall out of love, and new multicultural families are formed. Bruno ends up deposited in Sulina after Franz’s sudden death, with the new knowledge that both have been his adoptive (rather than biological) parents. He remains in Romania with Mara’s welcoming but foreign family, whose language he doesn’t speak, as Giorgi sails the riverboat symbolically on into the Black Sea.

Screen shot of Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunarea (Lotus Film, 2013)
Fig. 3. Screen shot of Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunarea (Lotus Film, 2013), directed by Goran Rebic.

The Serbian-Austrian Rebić uses the Danube to tell the stories of international and trans-historical traumas, yet he also clearly casts the river as the lifeline for a number of postnational orphans caught between the memories of Western and Eastern Europe:

Rebić himself is a testament to the region’s metamorphosis and permeability . . . He lives and works in Vienna, making films which are largely financed by Austrian production companies and Austrian-based cultural funds but which take Balkan history and culture as their subject matter. His films feature multi-lingual actors and multi-national technicians and staff. [13]

Rebić witnessed at proximity, as well as at safe distance, the bloodshed of the fratricidal wars that marked the end of socialist Yugoslavia. His film begins after the horror has ended, exploring instead Europe after the rain, and after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević.

To see his vision of renewal through, Rebić combines the essayistic mode (à la The Ister) with more familiar fiction film tropes to portray the Danube as an all-powerful natural force that triumphantly restores quasi-mystical order to a world nearly destroyed by human infighting. While the years following the release of Rebić’s film did see dramatic floods from the Danube reminding local populations of the river’s power, the optimistic intimation in Rebić’s film that the spirit of the Danube might provide new beginnings and idealized multicultural families to the river’s many orphans, reads today quite tragically as of a particular fleeting moment. The vision of a unified post-socialist United Europe—in the wake of the ongoing refugee crisis and the international resurgence of rightist nationalisms—seems at once painfully fictional and ideologically exposed. The endurance of modernist fragmentation, in other words, remains more than a matter of style.

Screen shot of Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunarea (Lotus Film, 2013)
Fig. 4. Screen shot of Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunarea (Lotus Film, 2013), directed by Goran Rebic.

Finally, Adina Pintilie’s short docu-fiction Oxygen (2010) reimagines the story of a man who tried to illegally escape Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania across the Danube. Pintilie, a graduate from Bucharest’s National University of Drama and Film, joins a number of Danubian filmmakers in situating her work at the border of fiction film, documentary, and contemporary visual art.[14] In the past decade, her work has been selected for inclusion and awards at more than fifty international festivals. Given the length and format of her works, one could arguably classify her as a “festival filmmaker” rather than a national one (with the resulting implications for expected audiences). Pintilie’s 2010 film Oxygen has been described by reviewers as a “documentary which recreates the contexts where many young people have put their lives in danger just to evade communist Romania”; albeit with the caveat that the “documentary [is] reconstructed by means of a fiction film.”[15] The source material for the story is a particular event in a larger tragic history: here, the story of a man who tried to escape Romania illegally and futilely by way of an oxygen tube and the river.

Clearly, however, the “reenactment” offered by Oxygen serves a different purpose than in such examples as Errol Morris’s famous The Thin Blue Line (1998). Morris’s use of reenactment argues for the (im)plausibility of a series of events: Morris himself has been adamant in interviews to reject appellations of “postmodernism” to his work, arguing that the truth, while elusive, must nevertheless be sought.[16] Pintile’s work by contrast is implicitly set against the backdrop of the largely realist Romanian new wave: the emphasis here is on atmosphere, the modernist poetics of the shots, the circular fairytale structure (the film opens and closes with a fish struggling on dry land), all of which envelop the archival footage and echo somewhat the alchemy of Péter Forgács’s practice. The metaphor of insufficient oxygen is too close to the surface to need pointing out, but several aspects of Pintilie’s film do warrant unpacking. First and foremost is the proximity of this depiction of the tragic crossing of the Danube to a number of films about similar attempts to escape Cuba (including the popular 2000 film Before Night Falls, starring Javier Bardem). Here too the would-be escapee stands for personal liberty and free art (underscored by a scene-stealing soundtrack of free jazz). This view of the Danube even resembles an ocean more than a river: compared to other visual imaginaries that stress linearity and directed flow, Oxygen views the river as local waters too wide to cross.

More importantly, Pintilie’s Oxygen foreshadows the rapid resurgence of Cold War-era aesthetics and political imaginaries alike in the second decade of the twenty-first century. New watershed years (the Crimean annexation of 2014, allegations of Russian interference in the American presidential elections of 2016) to many read as new twists in an older story of “Western” and “Eastern” civilizational conflict, even as the (former) West struggles to reconstitute itself in the wake and against the ghostly shadows of the former Soviet Union. Mere years after the integrationist fantasies offered by films such as The Ister (cautiously) to Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Dunarea (ecstatically), imaginaries of the Danube river once more tend to view the water as more border than artery, with one side representing, as ever, the frightening alterity of the too proximate foreigner.

Tracing the Danube’s flow in film shows us the binaries of Cold War thinking constantly subverted and as frequently redrawn. The indexical medium, dominant throughout the twentieth century and profoundly transnational by virtue of its collaborative casts, crews, and production team, serves as a mirror to the river’s own reflective surfaces throughout the long, lingering, and resurgent Cold War era. In the twenty-first century, amid the rise of new nationalisms and the shirking of collective responsibility of the crimes of the past, Europe’s most transnational of rivers remains witness and symbol once more.


[1] This essay follows the coedited volume Watersheds: Poetics and Politics of the Danube River, ed. Marijeta Bozovic and Matthew Miller (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2016). I am indebted to my co-editor and the entire team of contributors assembled by that volume for our formulations of Danube river studies and its hydropoetics.

[2] Friedrich Hölderlin, “Der Ister.” In Selected Poems, trans. Maxine Cherno and Paul Hoover (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 208), 303.

[3] Dragan Kujundžić, “The Nonbiodegradable,” ARTMargins (2007).

[4] See Thomas G. Paterson, “Eastern Europe and the Early Cold War: The Danube Controversy.” The Historian 33, no. 2 (1971): 237-47; or Victor Grossman and Mark Solomon, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); not to mention Claudio Magris’s magisterial Danube: A Sentimental Journey from the Source to the Black Sea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux reprint edition, 2008; originally published in Italian in 1986).

[5] The Danube’s significance to literature and other arts well predates moving pictures and is explored in numerous essays in the Watersheds collected volume.

[6] See John Dern, “The Revenant of Vienna: A Critical Comparison of Carol Reed’s Film The Third Man and Bram Stoker's Novel Dracula,” Literature Film Quarterly 33.1 (2005), 4–11.

[7] Quoted in Laurie Calhoun, “Pragmatism, Love, and Morality: Triangular Reflections in Carol Reed’s The Third Man,” Labyrinth: An International Journal for Philosophy, Value Theory and Sociocultural Hermeneutics 16.2 (2014):117-128.

[8] Roger Ebert, “Review: The Third Man,” (December 8, 1996).

[9] According to Paul Rea, by identifying himself with “dictatorships that treat people as a ‘mass’ to be manipulated: [Lime] succumbs to the amorality of a Hitler or a Stalin”; see Paul Rea, “Individual and Societal Encounters with Darkness and the Shadow in The Third Man, Film and Literature: A Comparative Approach to Adaptation, eds. Wendell Aycock and Michael Shocnccke (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press), 1988, 162.

[10] Dern, “The Revenant of Vienna”; see also the work of Dragan Kujundžić, “vEmpire, Glocalization, and the Melancholia of the Sovereign.” The Comparatist 29.1 (2005): 82-100.

[11] See Marijeta Bozovic, “The Danube and The Ister,” in Festschrift for Radmila Gorup, ed. Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover (Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2016).

[12] See Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18.

[13] Jennifer Stob, “Riverboat Europe: Interim Occupancy and Dediasporization in Goran Rebic’s Donau, Duna, Dunaj, Dunav, Dunarea,European Cinema After the Wall: Screening East-West Mobility, ed. Leen Engelen and Kris Van Heuckelom (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 142.

[14] I have in mind Péter Forgács’s experimental documentary The Danube Exodus (1998); see also the exhibit website, “The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River,” August 17–September 29, 2002 at the Getty Center. See also Jennifer Stob, “Private Looking and Collective Memory in The Danube Exodus (1998),” Watersheds, 120-143.

[15] Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema: An Introduction (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014), 84.

[16] See Lucia Ricciardelli, “Documentary Filmmaking in the Postmodern Age: Errol Morris & The Fog of Truth.” Studies in Documentary Film 4.1 (2010): 35-50.