Search This Blog

Wednesday 24 October 2018

The Waldheim Waltz, Documentary Film, Austria (2018), written and directed by Ruth Beckermann, 9* out of 10

Ruth Beckermann’s documentary The Waldheim Waltz consisting entirely of archive material, including her own first experiences with using a camera to document political events, is a skilful and timely piece of modern political history. With populism rising, it is also painfully relevant. The Waldheim Waltz has deservedly won several awards including the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This is highly recommended viewing for anyone interested in modern politics. 

When the artist, writer, filmmaker and public intellectual Ruth Beckermann found a videotape copy of her first experiments with documenting events she was involved in on film and viewed the material, the idea slowly matured to make it the basis of a documentary on the events marking the Austrian presidential election of 1986 which put Austria in the international spotlight - and not in a complimentary way. It was in the run-up to that election that Austria found itself under unwelcome scrutiny from an American human rights NGO, the World Jewish Congress.

A very convenient foundational lie underlying the post-World-War- II re-birth was that in March 1938 Austria and its citizens had been the first victim of Nazi-German aggression. This lie was comforted by the all powers who were allied against Nazi-Germany and guaranteed the country's existence in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. The catholic-fascist Austrian republic of 1938 had indeed been eliminated and annexed by Hitler’s Germany, but the Austrian people were anything but victims in the process, if one excludes Jews, Roma, communists and a few other courageous political opponents, most of whom were not really ever accepted by the vast majority of their co-citizens as part of the "true" Austrian people. Nevertheless, modern Austria's foundational lie was so convenient to many inside as well as outside of Austria that the country's international image of Mozart, the Sound of Music, Sachertorte and idyllic skiing holidays could cover some very dark and nasty truths of many of its people's willing adherence to Nazi Germany.

And so it came that a tall thin Austrian diplomat and former foreign minister by the name of Kurt Waldheim was proposed as Secretary General of the United Nations by Bruno Kreisky, an Austrian chancellor with Jewish roots, who curried favour with the Austrian people by showing great tolerance towards Austrian politicians with a questionable record during World War II. Kurt Waldheim was appointed Secretary General of the United Nations held this office from 1972 to 1981.

In 1986 Waldheim became a candidate for the Austrian presidency for the Austrian People’s Party, a political party in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. that sees itself as based on Christian values. Waldheim’s campaign got off to a good start when a poster showed his aquiline facial features in front of a panorama of New York City, the twin towers still firmly standing to the left of his smiling portrait proclaiming the slogan: “The man whom the world trusts”.

But then the journalist Hubertus Czernin took the trouble to check on Waldheim’s official military records and found that they contained mention of voluntary memberships in unsavoury Nazi organisations, including a riding club that was part of the Nazi Sturm-Abteilung. A few years later Czernin, to whose memory the film is dedicated, would also play a role in the saga of the reluctant restitution by Austria of a famous painting, Gustav Klimt’s The Woman in Gold to its rightful Jewish owners in the United States, and is fictionally represented in the film of the same name, which dramatized the story and starred Helen Mirren.

Responding to Czernin’s findings was the beginning of the Waldheim Waltz, a dance of unbelievable claims, implausible denials, pretences of falsely righteous indignation, thinly veiled disdain for Jews who dared to be unrelenting in digging up evidence that kept contradicting Waldheim’s ridiculous explanations and forced him into a corner where he would have to choose: either to own up to the truth or continue to occupy the metaphorical dance floor in ever more frantic movements making room for himself with sharp elbows and metal capped dancing shoes.

Kurt Waldheim chose the latter and as his cold-eyed smile turned into a nervous smirk, Ruth Beckermann was there as part of a small group of mainly young intellectuals in Austria who were mostly on the left of the political spectrum and believed that uncovering and telling the truth was indispensable for the future of Austrian society. Despite this not going down well with the large majority of their compatriots who were whipped into an anti-Semitic hate-fest by Waldheim and his campaign managers, they persisted. 

Things really began to take off internationally when historians working with the Word Jewish Congress uncovered documents and a photograph that irrefutably placed Waldheim in the Balkans as the intelligence officer of the notorious General Alexander von Löhr who after the war was executed for war crimes against the civilian population in a brutal German campaign against Yugoslav partisans.

At that point, Waldheim “waltzed” frantically into the public television dominated studios to decry a calumnious campaign against him and the Austrian people no less by a small number of Jews in the United States directed by his Austrian opponents.

For a young Jew from Austria like me, who had left the country over ten years earlier for London because I could not see a professional future there without my Jewishness always being an issue, it was confirmation that my move had been right. I was looking on from my posting with Bank of America in San Francisco and London as the international reporting of the Waldheim Affair unfolded and I remember how very relieved and happy I felt about having left my country of birth.

For the few young Jews then living in Austria including Ruth Beckermann the political climate turned from uncomfortable to downright nasty.

With archive material filmed by her younger self and collected from many other sources, Beckermann chronicles a key episode in Austria’s history which is also a timely contribution to the study of populist strategies which have now gained a stronger and visible foothold worldwide. She lets the protagonists speak for themselves including some very unpleasant Austrian vox-pop 1986-style. She also helpfully provides context. There is the German Chancellor Kohl standing with Ronald Reagan by the graves of members of the SS; there is an interview with Waldheim as Secretary General with the French television, where he explains that as Secretary General of the United Nations he does not have armies but he has no one he is accountable to no President above him, no Parliament. He is the highest moral authority on earth. In the light of what transpires about his prodigious talent for being economical with the truth, this interview turns out to be the height of irony and cynicism.

Ruth Beckermann's voice as she reflects on her own role at the time seems to be tinged with monotonic sadness. Yet resistance was not entirely useless: It arguably prevented a first-round win for Waldheim by a whisker, forcing him to waltz ever more frantically against his will. And the convenient lie to the world that Austrians were the first victims of Nazi-Germany became untenable. Although Austrian elected him he was now the man whom the world distrusts and did not receive a single invitation to a state visit during his tenure.

But time went by and a new populism became mainstream not only in Austria. In 2018 a coalition government under the 32-year-old Austrian People’s Party Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is arguably the most skilful and successful of right-leaning populist governments in the European Union and beyond. Kurz’ idealised young and determined face adorns Newsweek Magazines cover page in October 2018 with the ominous title “Austria Rising”. There will be more battles to fight and document for Ruth Beckermann and her friends.

It has also occurred to me that The Waldheim Waltz should be watched as a double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy “Inglorious Basterds” as a kind of allegory with the Inglorious Basterds depicting the World Jewish Congress and SS Colonel Hans Landa providing a smoother more elegant version of Kurt Waldheim in his Wehrmacht years. The character of Hans Landa is brilliantly played in an Oscar-winning performance by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz – and here the title of Ruth Beckermann’s documentary, Waldheim’s Waltz takes a second equally resonant meaning.

Even without the Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds as a companion piece, Ruth Beckermann’s deservedly multi-award winning documentary is a brilliantly devised and compelling piece of recent political history of great relevance to current events. Don’t miss it.

Ruth Beckermann

No comments:

Post a Comment