May 21, 2019

Current Politics Reflected in New Film ‘The Waldheim Waltz’

“The Waldheim Waltz” choreographs the agile steps of one of the more strange actors in recent world history, a man whose career nevertheless still holds warning signs for current political swings in Europe and the United States.

Kurt Waldheim was an Austrian, raised in a pious Catholic family, who served as a Nazi soldier and intelligence officer. He was elected to the United Nations’ secretary-general — twice — before becoming the president of Austria in 1986.

Waldheim managed to land these high-profile positions largely by massaging his biography to convince the world that he had just been a soldier following orders in World War II.  

He argued that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression when Adolf Hitler annexed the country in 1938. A popular joke at the time praised the skill of Austrian diplomacy in convincing the public that Hitler was a native German and Beethoven was an Austrian even though the opposite was true.

In the early 1980s, between Waldheim’s terms as U.N. secretary-general and his Austrian presidency, the World Jewish Congress and Eli Rosenbaum, director of the U.S. Office of Special Investigations, began examining his background.

Waldheim’s wartime record revealed that after his service on the Russian front, he became an intelligence officer with the German army staff in the Balkans, where he played a key role in the brutal reprisals against the civilian populations in Yugoslavia and Greece, and, in particular, in the deportation of most of the large Jewish population in Salonika to Nazi death camps.

The charges and denials by the Waldheim camp became a focus of the heated Austrian presidential campaign in 1986. Protesters hoisted slogans including, “No to anti-Semitism, No to Waldheim,” while his supporters countered with, “We Austrians elect who we want” and “Waldheim, an Austrian who the world trusts.”

Among the protesters was Ruth Beckermann, a young Jewish Viennese woman and budding filmmaker, who photographed large segments of the demonstrations and counter-rallies. Twenty-seven years later, Beckermann, a successful documentary filmmaker, decided to take another look at the earlier footage. Adding material from archival and current news reports in “The Waldheim Waltz,” Beckermann draws a historical line between the events of the 1980s and current political developments, particularly in Europe but also in the United States.

“Adding material from archival and current news reports, filmmaker Ruth Beckermann draws a historical line between the events of the 1980s and current political developments, particularly in Europe but also in the United States.”

Describing herself in a phone interview as “half demonstrator, half documentarian” (as well as director, producer, scriptwriter and narrator), Beckermann said she discerned in the 1986 Austrian election the emergence of a new political force. She noted that Waldheim’s election as president represented one of the first victories of the “black-and-blue” coalition between traditional conservative ideologies and the populist, nativist appeal of vigorous right-wing activists.

She sees this new political force emerging today. Beckermann cited the current rise of populist anti-immigrant leaders in Austria, Poland and Hungary, the Brexit movement in Great Britain, reinforced right-wing constituencies in Israel and France, as well as the election of President Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, Beckermann said she detects a glimmer of hope “that the good people will rally — though I don’t know just when — and that mankind will survive.”

“The Waldheim Waltz,” opens Nov. 16 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and the Town Center in Encino.