A Failure to Respond: On Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltzby Sean Nam
“The truth is on the march and nothing shall stop it,” Émile Zola once wrote regarding the Dreyfus affair. In fact, the truth often appears to be a bit bogged down, inert, buried, in desperate need of being ferreted out. Truth, in many ways, requires a manual undertaking. As Zola, the most committed Dreyfusard of his day, would later wryly admit as much to a friend, “Oh, yes, the truth is on the march—but at a snail’s pace! We will be dead by the time it triumphs!”
Something of this impression of truth—as belabored, hardly guaranteed—would have likely crossed a young Ruth Beckermann’s mind when she took to the town square of Stephansplatz, Vienna, in the spring of 1986, with little more than a fine-tuned moral compass and a bulky, black and white consumer camcorder, a cutting edge invention in those days. This was an election year for Austria and pockets of its capital were alight with fervid chants of “Waldheim, nein!” and banners emblazoned with the words “Anti-semitism must not pay off!” Incredibly, the place of European Jews was once more under existential threat, this time thanks to one Kurt Waldheim, the tall, suave, and successful career diplomat considered to be a shoo-in for Austria’s presidency. Impeccably credentialed, Waldheim served two terms, from 1972 – 81, as Secretary General of the U.N., where he made his name as a “moral authority.”
But during the late stages of the election, researchers at the New York-based World Jewish Congress unearthed a body of revelatory evidence—photographs, eyewitnesses, medals, signed documents, etc.—attesting to Waldheim’s significant involvement with the Nazis. The charges included his complicity in the deportation of thousands of Greek Jews to Auschwitz and in the massacre of Yugoslav partisans in the Kozara region, among others. The candidate who pitched himself to the citizenry as “a man the world trusts,” now had some questions to answer—and he did so, some might say, with aplomb, with all the carefully calibrated feints, slips, and spry side-steps of a world-class defensive prizefighter on the ropes. Waldheim would go on, in the runoff, to receive 53.9% of votes and become Austria’s 9th president, a post he would hold for six years until 1992. The truth was on the march, yes, and then it fell into a ditch.
So, what happened? How did an ex-Nazi—a former intelligence lieutenant to be exact—manage to land the most powerful position in the country? Some thirty years later Beckermann, herself Jewish, tries to reckon with these questions in the all-too-timely The Waldheim Waltz. Eschewing any new filmed material (and the self-aggrandizing agendas of talking heads), the film is composed solely of archival footage culled from the 1970s and ’80s, which, to an extent, brings to mind Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică’s 1992 found footage film of the Romanian civil uprising, Videograms of a Revolution. In tense, chronological order, The Waldheim Waltz tears into the events that make up the three month period between the bombshell WJC report and Waldheim’s eventual election. Occasionally, Beckermann, who has been making films about Jewish identity and the Holocaust for over forty years, inserts her own assertive commentary via voiceover. The result is a disturbing portrait of prevarication, collective amnesia, and moral failing in a nation’s history.
One of the strengths of Beckermann’s strategy of relying only on archival footage—beyond the fact that it lends the film a sense of immediacy and narrative intrigue—is that it affords the viewer ample opportunity to size up the carefully coiffed Waldheim, to see how this exemplar of Austrian gentility—note all the decorative qualities: the thin, avuncular smile, the tightly slicked-back silver hair, the fastidious dress—managed to wiggle his way out of every tight corner. (In one humorous PR gaffe, Waldheim’s spokesperson claims that only his horse was involved in the SS). This is all an “extensive smear campaign,” he swore consistently before reporters, while tweaking his story for the nth time. Among Waldheim’s inconsistencies is the conspicuous omission of the years 1942 and 1943 in his autobiography. As the film shows in the droves of doe-eyed supporters who turned out for Waldheim’s rallies, there is no mystery about why he succeeded. “[Waldheim] is the perfect president for Austria,” notes, at one point, Hubertus Czernin, the journalist whose initial story in Profil magazine launched the WJC investigation, “but it’s a shame.” For one to waltz, after all, one needs a partner.
In a perfect world, such a scandal should have been more more than enough to topple a would-be politician. But the charges levied against Waldheim had a strange way of emboldening many Austrians. Waldheim’s familiarity, his seemingly faultless character, and cosmopolitan charm, his plea to “Christendom,” were all sources of intense identification for many Austrians. But most of all, they identified with Waldheim’s sense of victimhood. Austria, after all, had long positioned itself after the war as the “first victim” of the Nazis, a view that went largely uncontested for decades and one could argue, would have gone for much longer had disclosures about Waldheim’s past not arisen. Indeed, it would not be until 1991 that the Austrian government would publicly acknowledge their roles as instigators behind Nazi atrocities.
The ramifications of this collective myth is made apparent in a piercing scene from the film, in which Waldheim’s son, Gerhard, a banker, testifies before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in an attempt to combat the WJC allegations that his father was involved in massacres in the Balkans. Despite his good intentions, Gerhard’s defense is ultimately paltry, offering nothing more than that his father is “extremely hard on himself.” A brutal cross-examination follows, led by Tom Lantos, a U.S. Congressman and Shoah survivor, who admonishes Gerhard. “It defies the rational mind to expect for us to swallow this,” says Lantos. The footage runs unbroken and lingers heavily on a speechless, near-cataonic Gerhard as Lantos lays into him.
But the most harrowing scenes come from Beckermann’s own protest footage, which act as a refreshingly raw counterpart to the highly mediated news reports and interviews that largely make up the film. In one snippet, Beckermann captures a stubby old man with thick, lugubrious glasses jawing back and forth with one of the demonstrators. “Are you a Jew boy? Shut up,” he snaps. “The bomb is coming for you—Jewish swine!,” he then adds. This prompts an incredulous bystander to step up to the bigot. “What makes you think you can say this in broad daylight?” The question reverberates like peals from a bell. Against such visceral antipathy it is no wonder that Beckermann issues an injunction of sorts at the beginning of the film: “Either you document or you protest. You have to choose.”
Or, to put it another way, you have to remember, as Claude Lanzmann made clear regarding the Holocaust in Shoah (to which Beckermann pays tribute in her film). Protesters in the film referred to Waldheim’s brand of selective forgetting as “Waldheim’s disease.” One child is shown holding up a cardboard placard scrawled with the words “I don’t want a memory lapse as president.” In the film’s most moving moment, an old Austrian-Jewish woman take up the microphone in Stephansplatz and cries out with endearing agony, her voice reaching a guttural register, “[Waldheim] insists that he doesn’t remember a thing… but I remember everything clearly!”
Though it is ostensibly about the failure and shame of a nation, The Waldheim Waltz is not cynical. By chronicling the resistance, as led by the dogged group at the WJC and the brave men and women who flooded the streets of Vienna, the film suggests a singular belief in the merits of political activism. Though Waldheim would never suffer any judicial consequences, he would soon become a pariah of sorts in international circles. As the postscript to the film relates, a year after Waldheim’s election the U.S. would formally ban him from ever entering the country.
That The Waldheim Waltz appears at a timely crux in Western democracy serves only to restate the obvious: that the hatred of Jews has long been a fact of life in Europe, and to see today anti-semitic activities crop up again in former hotbeds like France (where an eighty-five year-old woman was murdered in Paris), Poland, England, Germany (see Chemnitz), not to mention Austria, where a far-right party has a spot in the government, is to be reminded of history’s cruelly cyclical nature. In the age of “fake news,” of charlatans taking up the highest of offices, The Waldheim Waltz is perhaps not so much of a warning shot to the world as it is a precise, crystalline reflection of it.
SEAN NAM lives and writes in New York City. He has written for The Cruelest Sport, Cineaste, and Atlas Obscura, among others.