When countries submit one of their own to contend for the foreign-language film Oscar, as 87 nations did this year, documentaries, no matter how well done, are hardly ever selected.
Austria, however, has gone against the grain, provocatively choosing “The Waldheim Waltz” for consideration this year. That this thoughtful and inquisitive doc was chosen is a tribute both to the skill with which it has been made and the way the past events it details raise uncomfortable questions about today.
For those with long memories, it’s clear from the title that the film, written, directed as well as narrated by Ruth Beckermann, deals with the unusual career of Kurt Waldheim, once one of the most prominent Austrians on the international political scene whose professional life was all but derailed in a quite unexpected fashion.
Beckermann, however, does not start the film in any big picture way, quite the contrary. Part protester, part documentarian, she presents low-key footage she herself shot back in 1986, footage she had thought lost for more than 30 years.
The film shows us the beginning of what looks to be a desultory, modest demonstration against Waldheim, who was then running for the largely ceremonial office of president of Austria.
But just the act of quietly protesting Waldheim’s candidacy suddenly draws a hostile backlash in a gathering crowd, creating ugly reactions that refuse to go away.
It is Beckermann’s thesis that the Waldheim candidacy and the ruckus it provoked was the beginning of the end for Austria’s “grand delusion of having been the first victim of the Nazis.”
For as it turns out, this election triggered an emotional reckoning with Austria’s past, infuriating people on both sides of the issue in a way that echoes through the decades to right now.
Though Hitler’s Reich did indeed invade Austria, the film produces evidence that even if the country as a whole and Waldheim in particular did not want to admit to it, they reacted to the Germans not as resistors but cooperative collaborators.
Certainly, as the documentary shows, Waldheim was the unlikeliest person to have this kind of scandal arise around him.
After all, he was “a man the world trusts,” elected twice as the secretary-general of the United Nations, someone whose voice was on the Voyager Golden Record that went out into deepest space.
And as a politician who in 1986 ran for his country’s presidency, Waldheim certainly looked the part. Trim, aristocratic, a natural diplomat and a deft campaigner, he seemed a sure thing to avoid a runoff until two months before the election.
That’s when an Austrian news magazine published a bombshell about two years of Waldheim’s World War II biography it said he had concealed. This was followed in short order by more detailed reports coming out of the New York-based World Jewish Congress.
Waldheim had always claimed he’d been drafted, wounded early in the war and discharged, but official records told a different story.
It turns out Waldheim had enlisted in the S.A., the Nazi paramilitary organization, later becoming part of the Germany army. There was even the possibility he had been involved in inexcusable actions against Yugoslavian partisans as well as the mass deportation of Jews from Salonika.
How Waldheim and Austria responded to these charges is the most fascinating part of the story, and Beckermann and her team have culled specifics from hundreds of hours of TV footage.
Never at a loss for words (though his son Gerhard is at one point shown to be memorably speechless), Waldheim began a series of smooth tactical retreats, only admitting as much as he needed to at any given point.
At first, Waldheim called the charges old and discredited and a smear campaign, but as evidence mounted that the whole truth had not been told he claimed he’d been no more than “an honest soldier” and insisted to voters, “I stand before you with a clear conscience.”
Even more disturbing was the reaction of Waldheim’s conservative Austrian People’s Party. Seizing upon the fact that the New York based WJC were key players in the accusations, the party accused them of being outside agitators “stirring up feelings nobody wants,” in effect mobilizing anti-Semitic feeling by seeming to decry it.
How this all played out in terms of the Austrian election will surprise no one, but seeing how much the situation came to prefigure the contemporary house of mirrors in Europe as well as America still comes as something of a shock.
'The Waldheim Waltz'
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes