Why Wald­heim Still Mat­ters

Ruth Beck­er­mann’s new doc­u­men­tary re­vis­its the as­cen­dance of the for­mer Aus­trian pres­i­dent.

Forward Magazine - - F ILM - By A.J. Gold­mann

Ruth Beck­er­mann is sick of peo­ple telling her that her films are timely. “It’s re­ally bor­ing,” says the Aus­trian di­rec­tor, who has been dig­ging into the dark cor­ners on her coun­try’s his­tory since “The Pa­per Bridge,” which screened at the 1987 Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val. But with a far right po­lit­i­cal party lead­ing Aus­tria for the first time since World War II, it seems in­evitable that her new film, “The Wald­heim Waltz,” should strike au­di­ences as top­i­cal. “The Wald­heim Waltz” is an ab­sorb­ing doc­u­men­tary about Kurt Wald­heim, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the United Na­tions be­tween 1972 and 1982, and later, pres­i­dent of Aus­tria, who con­cealed his Nazi past. At this year’s Ber­lin Film Fes­ti­val, “The Wald­heim Waltz” walked away with the Glashütte Original Doc­u­men­tary Award, which comes with €50,000 (US $53,000).

Beck­er­mann and I are meet­ing in the Aus­trian Film Café, which serves the best mélange this side of Salzburg (as well as a less con­vinc­ing Apfel­strüdel and Sacher­torte). It pro­vides a rare oa­sis dur­ing Europe’s largest film fes­ti­val, an 11 day cir­cus of the best — and some­times the strangest — of new world cin­ema.

Mon­tage is the key in­gre­di­ent to film­mak­ing: it is the most uniquely cine­matic as­pect of the medium, the thing that unites ev­ery film re­gard­less of genre or style. Beck­er­mann didn’t shoot any new footage for “The Wald­heim Waltz,” which is made up en­tirely of archival footage from 1986, the year of the elec­tion that pro­pelled the for­mer gen­eral sec­re­tary to the Aus­trian pres­i­dency. (When I ask if she con­sid­ered shoot­ing new footage, she said, “Why? That would have been ex­tremely bor­ing!”) If that sounds a tri­fle on the dry side, the re­sult is any­thing but. Set dur­ing the ten days lead­ing up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Beck­er­mann’s film is seam­lessly con­structed and tautly edited in the man­ner of a grip­ping court­room drama.

At the U.N., Kurt Wald­heim was known as “the man who the world trusts.” Four years af­ter re­turn­ing to Aus­tria, Wald­heim was hot on the campaign trail, all but cer­tain of an elec­tion vic­tory, when the World Jewish Con­gress gave a press con­fer­ence in New York. They re­vealed a photo that showed Wald­heim in a Nazi uni­form, flanked by Nazi and Ital­ian Fas­cist of­fi­cers, in what is now Mon­tene­gro. Pre­vi­ously, ru­mors had swirled about Wald­heim’s wartime ca­reer, but the for­mer sec­re­tary gen­eral had al­ways hid be­hind the great lie of his coun­try’s post­war nar­ra­tive: that Aus­tria was

Hitler’s first vic­tim. Of course, claimed Wald­heim, he had been drafted against his will into the Wehrma­cht, just like so many thousands of young Aus­trian men. The story that Wald­heim re­counted in his mem­oirs was that he was shipped back from the front af­ter be­ing in­jured in 1941 and spent the rest of the war de­voted to his stud­ies.

Af­ter the WJC re­leased the damn­ing photo, how­ever, stick­ing to that story wasn’t so easy. De­spite the mount­ing ev­i­dence that the WJC brought against Wald­heim — charges that in­cluded par­tic­i­pa­tion in mur­der­ous cam­paigns against par­ti­sans in the Balkans and the de­por­ta­tion of Thes­sa­loniki’s 60,000 Jews — he con­tin­ued to pro­claim his in­no­cence. Even more baf­flingly, the Aus­tri­ans, by and large, be­lieved him. Call­ing him­self “the most slan­dered can­di­date in his­tory,” Wald­heim claimed he was the tar­get of a vast Jewish con­spir­acy and suc­cess­fully cor­ralled his com­pa­tri­ots to hide with him be­hind the man­tle of col­lec­tive vic­tim­hood. Shock­ingly, anti-Semitic tropes and lan­guage were out in the open, as can be seen in some of the film’s most grip­ping seg­ments.

At an anti-Wald­heim rally at Vi­enna’s main square, Stephansplatz, Beck­er­mann filmed a con­fronta­tion with a beer-bel­lied Wald­heim sup­porter who glee­fully screams “Sau­jüde” (“Jewish pig”) at the pro­tes­tors. When she shot this footage three decades ago, she had no in­ten­tion of ever putting it in a film. In her opin­ion­ated and an­a­lyt­i­cal nar­ra­tion, Beck­er­mann muses on the dif­fi­culty of choos­ing what to carry: a plac­ard or

a cam­era. De­spite the qualms she may have had at the time, she seems to have found a per­fect way to fold her ac­tivism into her film­mak­ing.

The ma­jor­ity of the footage in “The Wald­heim Waltz,” how­ever, was not shot by Beck­er­mann. She combed through over 150 hours of archival footage to­gether with Se­bas­tian Brameshu­ber, who is cred­ited as the film’s con­cep­tual col­lab­o­ra­tor. Per­haps the most re­mark­able thing they found is ma­te­rial of Wald­heim’s son, Ger­hard, ap­pear­ing at a U.S. Con­gres­sional sub­com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton to de­fend his fa­ther against charges of Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Ger­hard sticks to the script, re­mind­ing the con­gress­men of his fa­ther’s distin­guished po­lit­i­cal ca­reer and claim­ing that he is be­ing un­fairly per­se­cuted. “We’re not pro­fes­sion­als at this game,” Ger­hard told the New York Times in an in­ter­view done at the time. “Un­like the World Jewish Con­gress, we don’t have the re­sources to con­duct a man­hunt.’’ (The scenes where WJC lead­ers Is­rael Singer, Eli Rosen­baum and Elan Stein­berg hold scrappy press con­fer­ences in their cramped of­fices make a hi­lar­i­ous con­trast to such claims of grand malfea­sance). But de­spite the veiled — or not so veiled — anti-Semitism of such lan­guage, one al­most feels bad for Ger­hard in the role of the du­ti­ful son mak­ing all sorts of ex­cuses and eva­sions that his de­ter­mined cros­sex­am­iner, U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tom Lan­tos, re­fuses to ac­cept. The in­ter­ro­ga­tion — un­aired footage that Beck­er­mann lets us see in its en­tirety — ef­fec­tively mir­rors the mix­ture of moral panic and de­nial that gripped post­war Aus­trian so­ci­ety and helps ex­plain how Wald­heim emerged from the scan­dal as the coun­try’s demo­crat­i­cally-elected pres­i­dent.

Al­though the story had an un­happy end­ing — the bad guy won! — Beck­er­mann feels that the Wald­heim Af­fair was a tip­ping point in Aus­tria’s re­la­tion­ship to its Nazi past. In the elec­tion’s wake, stu­dents be­gan re­mov­ing the pres­i­dent’s por­trait from class­rooms. Wald­heim’s pres­i­dency, which lasted un­til 1992, was a low point for Aus­trian diplo­macy and the coun­try in­creas­ingly found it­self iso­lated on the world stage. One telling ex­am­ple: Pres­i­dent Wald­heim was per­sona non grata at the White House.

If to­day’s Aus­tria is more hon­est in deal­ing with the role it played in the Holo­caust, Beck­er­mann says it’s be­cause the Wald­heim case played a de­ci­sive role in chang­ing peo­ple’s — es­pe­cially the younger gen­er­a­tion’s — hearts and minds. Wald­heim’s vic­tory was short lived, while the chain of events his scan­dal set off ul­ti­mately dis­man­tled Aus­tria’s great post­war lie.

The Wald­heim af­fair forced Aus­tria to re­ex­am­ine its Na­tional So­cial his­tory from an­other, more truth­ful per­spec­tive. Beck­er­mann claims that the Free­dom Party of Aus­tria, the right-wing pop­ulist party that has been a part of the coun­try’s rul­ing coali­tion since last year, is in­tent on un­do­ing that hard-earned vic­tory by em­ploy­ing “el­e­ments from Nazi ide­ol­ogy in or­der to shape the fu­ture.” Like Wald­heim him­self, they project an “aura of in­no­cence.” While the as­cen­dency of far right par­ties through­out Europe (in­clud­ing in Ger­many) might be the most ob­vi­ous par­al­lel, Beck­er­mann tells me that the Ger­man jour­nal­ists she has spo­ken to have made a dif­fer­ent con­nec­tion.

“It’s funny, you know, be­cause when Ger­mans see the film, they im­me­di­ately start talk­ing about Trump,” the di­rec­tor says. “They see Wald­heim as an ear­lier master of ‘al­ter­na­tive facts.’”

Wald­heim claimed he was the tar­get of a vast Jewish con­spir­acy.

COUR­TESY OF RUTH BECK­ER­MANN FILMPRODUKTION

A BRUSH WITH IN­FAMY: Kurt Wald­heim con­cealed his Nazi past when he was Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of the United Na­tions be­tween 1972 and 1982.

COUR­TESY OF RUTH BECK­ER­MANN FILMPRODUKTION

IN THE TIME OF WALD­HEIM: Beck­er­mann’s doc­u­men­tary is culled from over 150hours of archival footage.

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