We talk to Ruth Beckermann about her newest feature documentary “The Waldheim Waltz”, and touch on truth and politics, youth and history, and the importance of integrity.
With Austria being the only West European nation to be governed by a far-right party since World War II, The Waldheim Waltz by director Ruth Beckermann seems more timely than ever, reflecting on „truths and lies or alternative facts… individual and collective conciousness“. While running for president of Austria at the 1986. elections, Kurt Waldheim – the former secretary general of the United Nations – is confronted with his suspicious past. Waldheim has refused to talk about his involvement in the war as a Wehrmat soldier before being wounded in 1942, but material discovered by the World Jewish Congress indicates an entirely unpleasant truth.
There is evidence that he participated in numerous aprisals against civilians in Yugoslavia – most notably Operation Kozara in 1942. Under closer inspection was also his service in the Army Group E headed by Alexander Löhr later executed for war crimes, as well as his involvement in the mass deportation of Jews in Greece to concentration camps, and the spreading of anti-Semitic propaganda. In this way, both Waldheim and the Austrian general public are forcibly faced with the past they struggle to accept. We talk to Beckermann about the film, Waldheim’s lies and his relevance for Austria today.
K!K: While watching the film, we noticed that it is not so much about Waldheim’s war record or proving if he was involved [in the crimes] or not, but about him as a figure, and his constant lies; this seems very timely in the era of fake news, when we are learning more about politicians’ personal lives than ever. Is this why you decided to use the footage from 1986. now, or is it a coincidence?
If one believes in coincidences, it is a coincidence (laughs). Maybe it was all in the air, because I started working on this film in 2013. It happened to me a lot of times that I’m working on something, and all of a sudden it is really up to date – it’s very odd, maybe I could somehow smell it. Of course, it takes a long time to make a film, so I didn’t start three months ago.
K!K: Was right-wing populism in the air in 2013?
Not so much. Orbán was around, but not as bad as he is now. This was not the reason why I made the film; I made it because young people were so interested in the affair, and I thought, why not go back, and really research it. I found out much more than I knew before, of course, because I was a part of it, but only of a small segment.
K!K: How did it feel rewatching your footage and digging through the archives to learn more- did it shock you? During the screening, most people knew what would happen, but they were still disappointed in the end – as if they somehow hoped it would be different.
That’s what happened in Berlin as well – there was this big sigh, “Oh“, as if everybody expected a happy end. That’s why the film is done well.
K!K: That’s true – you challenged our expectations. Everyone thought “No way this guy could win“.
It is the chronology – there is a countdown that helps [to achieve this feeling]; the countdown also helped me to go into many different subjects, to leave the chronology, and to go, I don’t know – talk about the United Nations, or Arafat, go back and have an association about my own school class with the cross on the wall, and it makes it easier for the spectator to come back when you have a countdown. You don’t have to explain too much.
K!K: The spectator is just there, in the moment.
K!K: You decided to only feature footage from that time, without any recent interviews or talking heads. Does asking people to reflect after the fact make it easier to control the narrative, and “change“ history?
Yes, from the beginning I didn’t want to have interviews from today, because that’s very boring – it is what television does all the time, and I think that if you stick to historical footage it makes the spectator discuss it after the film, which is much more important. The alternative is the spectator just listening to these people say what they remember, but I think it is more concise and more interesting to have the fresh speeches, and fresh interviews from then, and not just old men talking today.
K!K: It almost looks like a memory that the spectators are accessing, and reflecting upon, instead of reflecting on somebody else’s reflection.
Exactly. And even if they were not alive then, like you – you don’t need someone else to reflect [on something] for you.
K!K: Like those people who expect things to be different in the film, maybe we lie to ourselves and make ourselves believe things are always better than they are. Does this make it easier for people like Waldheim to lie to themselves, and us?
Yes. I think Waldheim constructed his story right after the war, and stuck to it, unable to move from it, because he was such a stiff and stubborn person. He couldn’t say “I’m sorry I didn’t write about these two years“, or anything else – he was always trying to stick to his story. Only when he was confronted with the facts, did he move a little bit away from the story.
K!K: To someone who wasn’t in Austria back then, or alive – it’s unbelievable that he still won. Is Austrian participation in World War II alongside Germany still a topic that’s dicussed in the Austrian society?
Today, no. Even Strache doesn’t deny Austrian involvement, even implicitly – the extreme right, even in the Waldheim era, never denied it, because they openly supported Hitler. They didn’t have to say they were his victims – others were maybe saying that, but never the extreme right. They were proud of it, and now they are not that proud of it anymore – or that’s what they say. I think the Waldheim afair was very important for Austria – a turning point, because today people don’t say that Austria was a victim anymore. At the time of Waldheim, this generation was still alive – others who were soldiers like him identified with him, so there was a great deal of solidarity with him.
K!K: He claimed that he did what anybody else would do.
Exactly, and that’s what people felt. And to them, us who were against him were the traitors siding with the Americans.
K!K: There is a lot of that here, too.
Who are you [supposedly] siding with?
K!K: It’s always the Americans.
(Laughter). Or the Jews. Today in Austria, it’s the foreigners who are the bad ones. Back in the day it was anti-semitism, today it’s the migrants and foreigners, but it is the same mechanism.
K!K: It is always somebody else’s fault – a way to delegate responsibility.
K!K: In the film, after being openly confronted with his past, Waldheim almost acts like the Nazi crimes were a natural disaster, a tornado – something that couldn’t be stopped, and just happened to disproportionately affect Jews. He often mentions the Austrian victims…
It is so strange. Several times in the film he is forced to say something about the Holocaust, and he always needs to say the same sentence: “But don’t forget the Austrian victims“. Even when he says, “Yeah, of course the partisans“, he adds “but, don’t forget the German soldiers“. He was never able to say: “The others were the victims“, he always has to emphasize the Austrian victims. I don’t know why, he seems to have a strange psychology.
K!K: For someone to be a victim, someone else needs to be…
The perpetrator, yes! He makes it sound like they are comparatively the same.
K!K: Here, we are still struggling with this a lot – deciding who the victims and perpetrators are, and accepting responisibility.
Yes, the Serbs have been major victims in the World Wars. Is there a polemic about this?
K!K: Only when it comes to the 90’s wars.
But in the Second world war it is clear that the Serbs were strongly against faschism – that’s why we [Jews] like them (laughter). Also, Mr. Mock* who appeared in my film was also among the first people who started to agitate Croatians, so things aren’t always clear – they need to be researched. What happened still isn’t very clear, but it was a lot about Christianity.
K!K: Isn’t it always? What comes to mind is the lady at the protest in the film, who says „He’s not the devil – he’s Catholic“…
(Laugher) That is so funny. As if the devil couldn’t have been a Catholic.
K!K: Interesting how extreme right-wing leaders always rely on these traditional religious values and Christian morals, to get support for some ideas that don’t sound very Christian.
Today, Christianity is being defended again – against Muslims, or whoever else. For instance, we are still having the abortion debate, because it is against religious morals.
K!K: Here, there is no doubt about condemning Nazism and everything that went on during the World wars, but elsewhere, for example in America, it seems there is a revisionist streak, so that some faschist views are reevaluated, and even justified with free speech. It’s almost controversial to be explicitly anti-faschist…
That is correct. There is a lot of confusion today, that’s for sure – about everything. The left is not the left anymore, the right is splitting up into several different sides, and it’s not a clear-cut world. That is interesting, but also dangerous, because it brings about insecurity, and when people are insecure and afraid, they seek a strong leader. Strong leaders today come from the right – even extreme right. I wouldn’t be against a conservative right – that is okay, but these [extreme] people are dangerous, and very much united. They recently had a meeting in Nice, France and as they say, Mr. Putin gives them a lot of money – so it is a very strange combination of interest. Putin – who supports all these parties who undermine modern Europe.
K!K: What was the reaction to the film in Austria? I saw the article about it was featured at the front page of Die Standard.
Yes, but the film isn’t released until Autumn. The Standard article was because of Berlinale, so I can’t yet tell you.
K!K: In an earlier interview you said people affiliated with the ÖVP (Österreiche Volkspartei, the right-wing political party Sebastian Kurz belongs to) saw it…
Oh yes. It was after Berlin, so of course, the film journalists have seen it there, but we already got some nasty comments from people who haven’t seen the film – even suggesting Nazi literature I should read…
K!K: Surely, you are interested…
Yes. (Laugher) I am a bit afraid of what will happen, but I think the majority of younger people, as well as reasonable people will like the film. There are always some crazy people out there. A year ago I wrote an essay about my research in a conservative newsapaper Die Presse, and the journalist called me and said there has been a while since they got so man letters – they were all defending Waldheim.
K!K: How come you wrote it for Die Presse?
They have a very good supplement on the weekends, about literature etc – this is all very open-minded.
K!K: Interesting. That must encourage discussion.
Someone wrote “She just wants to become famous, and Waldheim will make her famous…“. Very interesting indeed (laughs).
K!K: Waldheim used to be a personification of the Austrian general public. Do you think that is still the case? It seems like history is either cyclic, or some things never go away – are things constantly improving in Austria, or changing for the worse?
Things got much better after the Waldheim affair – civil society emerged, many people spoke up, like the people at the end of the film, and many projects were started – research about Austria’s guilt and what happened to the Jews, or homosexuals – all the certified victims. That is still going on – I wouldn’t call them the left, but the anti-faschist people became very outspoken and quite powerful, and today the others are trying to get the hegemony in public opinion, so I think history never stands still. Every generation had to fight for their own values. For instance, people are getting married again. In my generation, getting married was not something we thought about, it was not important. You think things go to one side, but then they go back. Interesting, but dangerous – for young women abortion is something evident, they don’t think they will have to fight for it again, but we can’t be sure that won’t happen, as conservatives want to make it a crime again. Every generation has to really fight for what is important to them.
K!K: Sometimes we take some things for granted, forgetting that someone else fought for them. Maybe we will have to fight again?
Yes, if you see photos of Egypt in the 50s, women were showing cleavage – it was quite modern, and look what happens today. Nobody would have though this could happen.
K!K: These things seem to happen overnight…
All of a sudden, it’s there. Turkey was such a modern country – when I’ve been there five years ago it was very much different from today. I haven’t been there recently, but I’ve heard enough.
K!K: Young people seem to not be protesting as much as they used to. How do you explain this?
K!K: People think it’s enough to type something?
It is so stupid. Maybe things will change again – people are so used to the internet, that they don’t use it as much anymore.
K!K: People feel like they’ve been to a protest if they RSVP on Facebook…
[Yes], but that’s not true. The internet can help – it is much easier to organize a demonstration or whatever – you just post [about] it, but if people only sit around their computer and phones… that is the danger of individualization. People don’t even go to the cinema anymore – they just watch films on their laptop. Maybe this will change.
*Alois Mock, Austria’s foreign minister 1987-1989. and a member of the ÖVP.
The conversation with Anja Anđelković and Tamara Tica was condensed and lightly edited for cohesiveness, with Miss Beckermann’s responses left intact aside from minor stylistic changes to achieve better readability.