How can someone have moral strength, somebody that you trust when he claims that he has supreme power, without any control above him? And why people don’t realize that these two concepts are not really hand in hand? Is it worse to be a war criminal or to lose credibility? Interview with director Ruth Beckermann and political journalist András Dési on the occasion of the Hungarian premier and screening of the documentary: The Waldheim Waltz.
“Waldheim no, Waldheim no”, a crowd shouts in the center of Vienna in 1986. Ruth Beckermann was one of the activists trying to prevent the election of Kurt Waldheim, and documented the political events with her camera. More than 30 years later, she revisits her archive and uses additional material to analyze this turning point in Austrian political culture. The film shows the web in which former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim became ensnared by concealing two years of his wartime biography. It analyses the collapse of the Austrian grand illusion: having been the first victim of the Nazis.
What was the impulse that made you grab your footage out of the drawer after all years?
Ruth Beckermann: I watched it five years ago with some young people, including my own son. They were around twenty. When we watched it together, they became so excited and asked so many questions. Their reference was Nixon, a politician who lied. They said: “You must make a film out of it!” I was shocked myself, why they find it interesting today. But when you see people shouting the anti-Semitic slogans on the streets today, it’s much more shocking than in those political-historical times. I thought it would be interesting to get a broader picture of what it happened. At the time I was an activist, I was in the middle of it. I didn’t watch the foreign TV-stations broadcast about the topic. So I thought it would be interesting to put the Waldheim-affair in an international context. In Austria, even until today, the whole case is thought about only in an Austrian context. If they make a documentary about it, they interview only Austrians. So that was my main purpose with the film on the first hand.
András Dési: I think that the Waldheim-affair is a turning point in the contemporary Austrian history. It marked the end of the denial of the role that Austrians played in the Second World War. Austria is finally confronts its past.
RB: The Germans had to face it. But the Austrians had a way out. They called themselves the first victims. They forgot that Hitler and Eichmann were also Austrians. But it worked out, because during the Cold War, Austria was an important country on the borders. The Germans took all the ugliness on them, and the Austrians had a good life.
AD: In the film, this victim role is destroyed.
RB: After Waldheim was elected, big discussions started. Nowadays, nobody would call Austria a victim of the war. The history books changed.
AD: The whole attitude of the Austrian society changed in the sense of how past is perceived.
RB: At least towards the past. Even the extreme right is accepting that the Nazi period was bad. On the other hand, they introduce many aspects of the Nazi thinking. The film was broadcasted in Austria several times; many people have seen it, young people too. And the discussion is always about the present, the extreme right problematic s in Austria, Italy, and Hungary.
You also mentioned in another interview how different the behavior in this topic becomes different when it comes to a personal or family level; the way his son Gerhard defends him in front of the court in America.
RB: The son believed the father, that what he said to him is the truth. Even though the facts were out at the time, the son very much identified with the father. At a certain point, you feel pity for the son. In Washington, he is very humble, but in the next scene, you see him in the Austrian TV saying that the Americans and the Jews are against my father. The same attitude, like the father: everybody is against this small country, we have to stick together and be patriots. Same as today when the Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán says that the world of Soros is against Hungary, we have to be patriots, stick together and defend the country.
AD: This is part of the waltz. In Hungary, we call this a peacock dance. It’s based on a double talk, different in Brussels than in Hungary.
How do you see this movie in the light of the media situation in Hungary?
AD: It’s a very good question. It’s very interesting to see how ORF, the Austrian public TV, was used and misused by the politicians, and the similarities how the Hungarian public TV is used and misused by politicians today. The basic problem of the Hungarian media is that political parties gained too much influence. Media is too much depending on politics and the government. This is the end of the independent, free journalism and media, although there are, thank God, some little islands that aren’t dependent from the government.
That’s why is so important that you are a senior adviser of Hungary for the RSF (Reporters Sand Frontiers).
AD: Yes, they finally decided to have a correspondent bureau in Hungary in 2016, right after the newspaper Népszabadság was closed down from one day to another as a result of a governmental decision. I felt much honored that RSF chose me as the Hungarian correspondent. Since 2019, I am a senior adviser, with a few colleagues taking the correspondent exercises from me.
I really like the contrast of the jazz music and the seriousness of the topic. What was your intention with this? To show how idealistic can be the presentation in the media?
RB: I actually chose this music to make it very clear from the beginning that this is a view from today, from my perspective. I start with my own footage, my own voice in the narration. I am very much against the pretention that documentaries can be objective. The news is not objective. Somebody chooses that news, and you don’t hear about hundreds of people dying somewhere. The news is chosen based on importance. We have to fight this lie. It is a fundamental lie towards people that what is on TV or radio is objective, as if sent by God. The jazz music is there at the beginning to make a light atmosphere, because I made a movie, not a history book; accessible to people, but with the language of documentary filmmaking. I believe that film is different from journalism. It takes a long time and a lot of money. The product should stay as long as people are interested in.
The Hungarian title of the movie was inspired by Lou Reed’s song Good Evening Mr. Waldheim with the same title. Do you know the song?
RB: Lou Reed is great, the song is great. But I hope they didn’t change the subtitles. (laughing)
Does the anti-Waldheim ‘Trojan wooden horse’ made by Alfred Hrdlicka still exist? Can it be seen by the public?
RB: Yes, the horse became a monument, it is now in an exhibition. After the events, the horse was folded and stored in a republican club for many years. But now it is in an exhibition about a hundred years of Austria. It was released after the movie was shown in Austria. It’s famous again! (laughs) At the time when it was made, it followed Waldheim everywhere, even to the Vatican; the only place in Europe Waldheim was invited outside Austria after being elected.
AD: Mr. Waldheim secretly visited Budapest. His memoirs were translated and released in Hungarian (with the title Nehéz mesterség / Difficult Profession – the editor) in 1987. He met János Kádár and György Aczél in a secret visit. In 1987, the Hungarian foreign minister visited Vienna and he was asked whether Hungary would welcome Mr. Waldheim, and he said, of course, we have an invitation for him. Hungary, as part of the communist Eastern block, was in favor of Mr. Waldheim.
How can someone have moral strength, somebody that you trust when he claims that he has supreme power, without any control above him? And why people don’t realize that these two concepts are not really hand in hand? Why was he elected?
AD: For most people, the past didn’t matter. It was enough justification for them that Waldheim had such a high rank in the UN.
RB: At the same time, Mr. Kreisky, a person of Jewish origin, was the chancellor. There was no issue with the past anymore, it was forgotten.
Waldheim refuses to wear a kippah during a ceremony in Jerusalem. And although he said that he was with most respect, what is more disrespectful than not to respect a nation’s culture and rituals?
RB: I’m sure he was doing on purpose, of course. His whole personality was enigmatic. But in Berlin there was a woman in the audience, a psychoanalyst, who said if he had put the kippah on his head, the whole guilt would have come up in him. It is one possible interpretation. It is also true that he was also a very stubborn person, proud, not flexible at all.
AD: Wearing the kippah, he would have admitted his weakness. He had to show toughness. And he also behaved as if he was superior.
What effect do you think this film will have on the Hungarian audience?
AD: We have common history with Austria for several centuries. And I think that the Hungarians could learn from it about how to deal with the past. We have very heated discussions about the 20th century history and the Hungarians role about the World War Two. This movie could help us in this confrontation with our historical past, as Hungary also can’t be considered as a mere victim of the Nazis.
Interview and translation: Enikő Nagy