Review: ‘The Waldheim Waltz’

RIDM premiere is Austria’s timely Oscar bid

6 mins read

The Waldheim Waltz
(Austria, 93 min.)
Dir: Ruth Beckermann
Programme: Special Presentations

If Donald Trump had been US president when the Kurt Waldheim scandal erupted in the 1980s, he would have ignored public evidence (and confidential CIA reports) that Waldheim lied about his Nazi affiliations during the war. “Kurt is a good man,” Trump would have said. “He told me three times he was innocent. Fake news!”

Beckermann’s film, Austria’s Best Foreign Language Film entry for the 2019 Oscars, shows Waldheim implying that he was being persecuted by the media, under the spell of the World Jewish Congress. The WJC had unearthed convincing evidence showing he was implicated in murder and mayhem. In a BBC interview, Waldheim angrily blurted out “There were casualties on both sides,” and good people on both sides, no doubt. The onetime UN Secretary General and 1986 candidate for the Austrian presidency also claimed that no political figure in Austrian history had been slandered like him. Sounds familiar?

When Beckermann launched the project five years ago, “There was no Donald Trump,” she told Haaretz, “and we didn’t have the government we have today in Austria. So even if there are parallels with what is happening today, it wasn’t intended.” But of course, her film has more urgency than she imagined it would. Right wing populism and neo-fascist movements are sprouting everywhere from Austria and the US to Hungary and Poland.

The Waldheim Waltz is a tightly constructed movie that strikes a balance between outrage and irony. Jaunty jazz riffs play under the opening credits, and the narration Beckermann voiced herself heightens the shocking absurdity of Waldheim’s denials of guilt, which by the way, reflect Austria’s. Unlike Germany, Hitler’s birthplace has never acknowledged collusion with the Nazis, or offered reparations to victims.

In the 1980s, before she became a filmmaker, Beckermann was an activist who joined fellow Austrians protesting Waldheim’s run for the presidency. With no plan in mind she filmed demonstrations with a reel-to-reel video camera and then forgot about the material. When by chance she found the videos, she embarked on The Waldheim Waltz, which begins with her grainy coverage. She builds the story with seamlessly assembled archival material: TV reports, press conferences, and so on. We flash back to when Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin opened the can of worms, revealing that Waldheim deleted three years from his wartime experiences in his autobiography. The UN’s supposedly benevolent advocate for the Family of Man was a Nazi, not the simple “honest soldier” he called himself, the poor victim drafted by the Germans and unable to escape their clutches until he got injured.

The World Jewish Congress joined in on Czernin’s exposé. Waldheim was an intelligence officer whose superior was hung for war crimes. In Greece and the former Yugoslavia, Waldheim seemed to have been mixed up in the torture of resistance fighters, the massacre of civilians, and the deportation of 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki to death camps.

Eventually, Waldheim acknowledged that his Nazi connection was tighter than he let on. But he never stopped making outrageous claims like he never saw the deportations. In a blistering sequence at the heart of the film, US congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever to sit in the House of Representatives, demolishes the lame defences of Waldheim’s son Gerhard. He points out the utter absurdity of claiming anyone could be unaware that a huge chunk of population has disappeared from a city. (The congressman formed the Human Rights Caucus, known today as the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.)

As the damning information accumulates, Beckermann generates an unusual dramatic tension by counting down from month to month toward Election Day. She plays on Waldheim’s image as an impeccably dressed smooth operator. He flashes his disarming smile, and during speeches stretches out his arms in a gesture meant to indicate his protective love for his country, but actually makes you think of Nosferatu approaching a victim.

As the countdown graphic clicks onto the screen, you get more and more incredulous that this guy could even run for office, let alone get elected. The Waldheim Waltz is a dance that continues from Washington to Brasilia. Watching the film and tuning into the daily news, you ask yourself what could possibly make it stop. The timing of the doc’s release is good for the film, Beckermann told Haaretz, “but not so much for the world.”

Visit the POV RIDM Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

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