Curse our luck and damn our naivety, in Vienna for less than an hour and already in the hands of the Russians. Our guide told us we’d be entering the International Zone via the British gate but before we knew it we were being abruptly questioned on our political persuasion in Russian by a burly guard with a bad attitude.
‘Da…da…yes, we’re good communists’.
We were searched, lined against a wall and told to wait. As our papers were genuine they had to let us enter the zone but once we had been ushered across the boundary line the guards vanished with our papers, plunging us to the bottom of the food chain. We were then descended upon by the black-marketers that call this bombed-out shell of a city home. Like Vienna’s multitude of rats, they had learned to survive amongst the ruptured sewers and flooded back alleys which we were now being lead through, towards who knew what. Eventually we reached a dark and dank basement and were introduced to the world of the black market, two fingers on the adjacent shoulder warns you’re being followed, a left-handed hand-shake with three swift turns means, ‘let’s trade’. We were then finally led to the surface. It already felt like a previous lifetime but what was it our tour guide had told us as we set off from the Barbican tube station on our ‘cultural tour’ of historic Vienna and before selling us out?
Oh yeah, ‘Welcome to hell’.
Told like this, I guess we sound like the innocent victims but the truth is we paid good money for this, these were exactly the experiences we were craving. The last time we did this kind of thing my girlfriend was arrested by the French military as we entered the Casbah (surprisingly just a short walk from Waterloo station), marched off with a dozen other trouble-makers, interrogated in French and forced to confess her part in the on-going bloody struggle for Algerian independence which blighted the 50s and early 60s (for Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers). All this whilst I sat around drinking strong coffee with the other colonialists. I don’t mind confessing that I was quite jealous.
Before that, we had been swept along by a youth movement demanding a revolution of creativity. We found ourselves in Covent Garden at the start of the 1950s, intoxicated by the gaiety and innocence of youthful abandon. It ended badly of course, the fairy tale slowly turning into a nightmare of obsession, addiction and self-destruction (Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes). But I digress, we were in the surreal landscape of Vienna, its iconic Ferris wheel sat like a child’s toy amongst piles of rubble littered with empty bullet casings.
Such are the joys of Secret Cinema, existing somewhere between a squat party and a murder mystery weekend. You get to dress up, travel to obscure parts of London and become absorbed in another time and place, or more accurately, you get to play for several hours inside the world and texture of a classic film which you then watch. This whole area is a stage for characters from the film to act out selected scenes and mingle and interact with the punters.
We all settle into the rhythm of exploring the zone, transfering our useless pounds at the bank into British Armed Forces Shillings, testing the street vendor’s bockwurst and sauerkraut, checking out the live band in the bar and passing through the empty children’s ward, everything being regularly punctuated with the barked orders of Allied troops as they man-handled criminals toward the police station (a place I succeed in avoiding). I find common tongue with a black-marketer about the crazy times we’re living through, the bright future ahead but how things may get worse before getting better. We achieved this despite his pigeon English, the fact that he was talking about life in post-war Austria and I was talking about impending parenthood, and that less than ten minutes ago he tried to sell me watered-down penicillin.
Everyone stays in character to an impressive degree. I ask the girl at the sweet shop when the film is going to start. ‘The what?’ ‘Today’s screening of the…eh…film about life in contemporary Vienna’. ‘…..’. Soon enough though, it becomes clear that the action around us is building to a dramatic conclusion. The Allied Forces were hunting some guy called Harry Lime, a charismatic type with a history of drug dealing. As the sirens wailed and police in plain white overalls scuttled around, I caught a glimpse of him, scaling the face of a building and then leaping from window ledge to window ledge. Apparently, he was cornered shortly afterwards and then shot in the back by his best friend. Anywhere else, this would have been a real turn-around, but in a place like Vienna, where down was up and up was down, it all made perfect sense.
By the time the corpse was being carried away, we had been ushered to our seats and told that the presentation was about to begin. As we sat in the dark waiting we could hear female footsteps echoing closer and louder. A beautiful women called Anna entered the room, walked down the aisle and addressed us all, sharing one of her love letters from Harry. Before she left and the film began she confessed that she had loved him too much.
Secret Cinema works as an analogy of life. At first it can be intimidating and confusing and by the time you get the hang of it it’s almost over. You pretty much know what’s going to happen, but the where’s, when’s and how’s are a mystery. You can dive in at the deep end or watch from the relative safety of the sidelines, but be warned, the chances are you’ll be wishing that you had been a bit braver and a bit more carefree, as you shuffle out the exit and the lights go up.