Ruth Beckermann’s tremendously relevant documentary The Waldheim Waltz is an excellent barometer for measuring what 40 years of collective willful amnesia and denial can do to a country’s self-image. The stage is Austria in March, 1986, in the midst of the presidential election when revelations come to light regarding candidate, and former UN General Secretary, Kurt Waldheim’s war-time record between 1941 and 1944 in Yugoslavia and Greece, whereby he is accused of possible involvement or at least having had knowledge of war crimes, including the deportation of Thessaloniki’s Jewish population—details that he conveniently chose to omit from his autobiography. Less concerned with establishing the facts and validity of these charges, Beckermann chooses rather to zero in sharply on Waldheim’s own dance around the truth, his waltz from one obfuscating statement to another, his shameful gaps in memory and frustratingly daft expressions of bewilderment when questioned by the media about the issue. Yet Beckermann’s indictment extends beyond the one man; her film is an interrogation of all of Austria, a country that, until then, sat comfortably and complacently in its illusionary role as the first victim of National Socialism with the Anschluss in 1938. And so the voice of Waldheim becomes the voice of Austria, his repeated denials doubling as a mirror for the country’s own. At one point in the film we see an excerpt from a television interview from that time with Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, whose initial reports in the Profil magazine eventually broiled over into what became known as the Waldheim Affair, saying: “He is the perfect president for Austria, but it’s a shame.” Yes, indeed.
Beckermann, along with her longtime editor Dieter Pichler, have ingeniously compiled The Waldheim Waltz exclusively out of television archive footage from the 1970s and 1980s, collating together material from a variety of international network sources that covered the controversy, much of it from the US and the World Jewish Congress—a central acting body in the affair, whose investigation into Waldheim’s past during the election led to further uncoverings, each one more nefarious than the last. Through disparate sources we encounter the many contradictory sides of Waldheim: the stately, self-assured man speaking grandly about his role as General Secretary for the UN, to him ten years later bumbling through an interview about his war activities, straining in his efforts to salvage his image. Stitched together with this material from the international front is Beckermann’s own fascinating footage that she shot in Vienna at the time in the days, weeks and months leading up to the election, documenting the activities of the local activists—many of them her friends—the heated street protests that erupted in the capital’s main square, all accompanied by her steady, dryly humorous voiceover. She explicitly inserts herself into the story, turning the film not just into an objective eyewitness account, but also into a personal tale of the time. Cradling the narrative is a masterful countdown structure of the weeks and months leading up to the final election on June 8, 1986. Inserted calendar dates, designed appropriately in the red and white colors of the Austrian flag, mark a new development in the proceedings, the result being that the film unfolds almost at the pace and intensity of a thriller, a kind of edge-of-your seat effect that one would not expect from an archive documentary. Beckermann leaves the footage largely unedited, eschewing the type of rapid inter-cutting between scenes that define the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of the TV documentary. Form and content run hand in hand, with large chunks of unabridged material of Waldheim speaking, providing him with more space to incriminate himself.
It is impossible not to note that nearly all of the anti-Waldheim footage from the home front is what Beckermann shot. The Austrian media coverage of the affair was resoundingly pro-Waldheim, a circumstance the filmmaker uses for some witty and troubling juxtapositions: blood-curdling scenes of public displays of anti-Semitism on Vienna’s Stephansplatz shot by Beckermann, colliding with state news footage of Waldheim at some rained-out rally in a rural village, conducting a brass band in the Austrian anthem, his awkwardly oversized arms and hands clearly not up for the job. It is as if the two materials were combating each other, with Beckermann’s recordings representing the rift that had torn a hole in Austria’s warped version of reality. She had previously dealt with her homeland’s dubious positioning towards its involvement in wartime atrocities in her documentary from 20 years earlier called East of War (1997). In it she films the visitors to a Vienna exhibition detailing the war crimes carried out by the Wehrmacht on the eastern front. The public, many of whom were German army veterans and present when said crimes took place, react dismayed, confused and outright incensed at the lies they felt were being spread by the exhibition. Together the two films form a diptych: a portrait of a nation suffering from historical myopia.
All of which leads to the unfortunate relevancy of Beckermann’s Waldheim: the current coalition government, newly elected in October last year, is headed by 31-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), and Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, who along with his party the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) has had a long history of associations with neo-Nazi groups, and who ran a campaign policy based on xenophobia and nationalism.
No doubt Beckermann’s film is sure to make inroads at home, but there still remains the unfortunate fact that in some countries a skewed version of history remains entrenched in the national psyche.
I sat down with Ruth Beckermann to talk about her film during the Berlinale at the Austrian Film Café.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you choose to preface the film with famous the Abraham Lincoln quote: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time,” followed by your own footage?
RUTH BECKERMANN: At a certain point I wanted to call the film “Waldheim’s Truth,” because for me it is a film about lying. So I thought this quote, and as Lincoln was also President, would fit perfectly. I mean, it is not the most original quote, it is very well known, but I wanted to give the audience from the beginning the idea that this was about lying. And it was always about that because I was not interested in his wartime record. I was interested in the way he behaved, in his denial, which is also Austria's denial.Also, I opened with my own footage because it is my own biography. The Waldheim Affair is very important in my own life. It's a turning point for Austria, but it was also a turning point for me, because I met so many people who were against him, which makes you feel more comfortable in this fucking country. As I say in the end, it makes you feel less lonely. Before the Jewish community tried to hide, to stay very low key—and then it changed. It was about Austria’s failure to reconcile with its own past.
NOTEBOOK: Throughout the film you have this refrain, to document or to protest, it was always an issue of either/or. But with this affair, it seems that you managed to fuse the two, documenting as a form of protest.
BECKERMANN: Of course, but when you film you have a distance. You cannot hold a banner and a camera, but in the way that I filmed, as you saw, I was right in the middle of the action. You might remember that scene of the protest on Stephansplatz, that guy yelling who pushes the microphone away.
NOTEBOOK: Did you always want to make the film solely out of archive footage, with no interviews or talking heads?
BECKERMANN: Yes, the artistic challenge for me was to make a film only out of television footage. Of course, I did interviews with people from different sides as a background for myself, but I think it is boring. 'I remember this, and I remember that.' This TV-style of documentary filmmaking was not something I was interested in at all. And there is another thing to do with it: if you bring the present time in with interviews, talking heads, et cetera, people are less encouraged to think for themselves about what they think today. If you have already people who tell you what they think...then there is no work for the spectator. I wanted the audience to see the film, and then talk amongst each other, which actually happened at the after-party. It was amazing. Usually people go to an after-party and they talk about something else, and here people really talked about the film, about Waldheim, about Austria, about Nixon and Trump, and that was actually the reaction that I wanted.
NOTEBOOK: You also allow the footage to play out for very long. I’m thinking especially of the scene of Waldheim’s son during the Congressional hearing.
BECKERMANN: But at the same I think this footage of the son is quite ambiguous, because you also feel sorry him: why does he defend his father, why is he so uncritical? Also the Congressman who interviews him in that scene was a survivor. He was a Hungarian, Tom Lantos is his name. He had survived in Budapest...you know about Raoul Wallenberg, he was the Swedish ambassador to Hungary, who saved many Jews, and Lantos was one of the ones that was saved. So he was quite close in the area, he knew about Austria, and I think that’s why he has this strong reaction towards the son.
NOTEBOOK: What surprised me was the amount of international coverage of the affair you included, yet there appeared to be no Austrian backlash.
BECKERMANN: Nobody grilled him in Austria. The response was 100% patriotism, except us of course. That's why all of the footage of the local counteraction to Waldheim was all footage that I shot.
NOTEBOOK: I knew that Waldheim won the election, but somehow in the course of the film I forgot, so that when the election results came in I was shocked. I think it has to do with this thrilling countdown structure.
BECKERMANN: Yes! During the premiere, when it says that Waldheim won the election with a majority of 53% or something, there was also this audible sigh in the audience. And I'm sure they knew too, but like you say, you forget, you always hope for a happy ending. I plunged into the material for a long time, and that is how eventually this structure emerged. I definitely wanted to make it an analytical film, and this simple mechanical structure of ticking down the days gave me the liberty and the freedom to go to into these digressions: to talk about why these changes were happening now, particularly then in the 1980s, to talk about the Bitburg controversy, about the film Shoah, which was very important to me, about Waldheim's time as Secretary General at the UN, and other questions I was interested in. From there I could come back to this chronological counting down, because the audience easily comes back to this mechanical structure. I also thought that this would also drive the film forward. The film starts on March 3, and ends on June 8, so within this limited time frame to work with I felt that a forward thrust would benefit the film.
NOTEBOOK: Were you surprised that he had won the election?
BECKERMANN: No, not at all. For us it was completely obvious that he would win. His generation, the people who fought in the war voted for him, not depending on party affiliation and they had built up this atmosphere of resentment, of anti-Semitism, of patriotism, and it's the exact same way as the people who won the election now, the same xenophobic agenda. It doesn't change. Immer wieder Oesterreich [rough translation: Always Forever Austria]—that's the song, or the slogan of the FPÖ, at their election parties singing this song.
NOTEBOOK: Have you considered organizing a screening for Chancellor Kurz and Strache?
BECKERMANN: No, but actually the Minister of Culture of Austria, and the closest ally to Kurz, was at the screening yesterday, and I managed not to meet him. He left during the end credits, and didn't stay for the discussion.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think the film will prompt some kind of real political action in Austria?
BECKERMANN: I think there will be strong reactions, because a couple of days ago there was a whole page in Der Standard [an Austrian national daily newspaper] already about the film, and they had hundreds of postings, many of them defending Waldheim. It was unbelievable—I did not expect that.