Lessons in populism
When I again saw the material that I had shot thirty years ago at demonstrations against Waldheim, I was shocked. Had I forgotten how easily emotions can be stirred up against others and used by populist politicians? In WALDHEIMS WALZER, I try to analyse what was happening back then. And what, unfortunately, seems familiar to us today when we think of Trump, Kurz/Strache and other masters of ‘alternative facts’ and populism. (Ruth Beckermann)
Conversation with Ruth Beckermann: “The Waldheim Affair was the reverse of the current situation”
Karin Schiefer: In 1986, Kurt Waldheim was elected State President of Austria; in 2000, the black-blue coalition [between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP, black, since 2017 also turquoise) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ, blue)] came to power. We’re meeting for this interview two days after the coalition government of Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) was sworn in, seventeen years after black-blue. It seems as if every fifteen years or so, there is a lurch to the right in Austria’s political landscape, or as if its past catches up with Austrian society in this rhythm. Does the Waldheim Affair seem to you symptomatic of Austria’s political terrain?
Ruth Beckermann: I began my first research for this film before DIE GETRÄUMTEN (2016) and then postponed it. The occasion for me to return to this theme was that I looked at the material I shot back in 1986 again, and that young people – my son’s generation, who weren’t born yet at that time – urged me to make a film. As absurd as it sounds, Austria’s political terrain is still partly coloured by National Socialism. The Waldheim Affair, however, was the reverse side of the Hofer/Strache phenomenon and the current situation. In the Waldheim Affair, the point was to finally come to terms with the past, which meant breaking open Austria’s lie that it was a victim. People finally began viewing Austria’s participation in National Socialism from another perspective. Truth finally prevailed, even if it took a long time. Franz Vranitzky [Austrian Chancellor from 1986 to 1997] didn’t give his speech on the Austrians’ complicity until 1991, after all. What Hofer and Strache are doing today is the opposite: they are using components of National Socialist ideology to shape the future. To conceal that, they stage a hypocritical commemoration. That’s what’s so terrible about current developments.
WALDHEIMS WALZER builds a bridge to one of your films from 1996: JENSEITS DES KRIEGES, in which you observed how visitors reacted to and interacted with the exhibition ‘War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944’. What you reflected about the collective, ten years after the Waldheim Affair, you have now focused on in the person of Kurt Waldheim; you thereby come upon one of the central issues of your cinematic work: how do we humans construct memory? How decisive for societal developments do you think memory and our dealings with it are?
I think memory has to be constructed anew again and again. That goes for our own memory, depending on what priorities we set in the present. But collective and national history is also written anew over and over, depending on the desires and needs of the present. So it was interesting not only to see my own material again from a distance of thirty years, but also to examine my own memories and, in an international context, to look closely at the material that was shot on the Waldheim Affair. My own memory is deceptive, too. The legendary wooden horse [a sculpture created after a sketch by Alfred Hrdlicka and commissioned by the ‘Republican Club – New Austria’ to protest Kurt Waldheim’s false depiction of his membership in an SA cavalry unit], for example, was made only after Waldheim’s election victory; I had thought it was from the time of the election campaign.
Why do you think the young generation is interested in this material?
The spontaneous association young people had when I showed them this material was: Donald Trump – lies, fake news, alternative facts and fomenting resentment. It was very important to me in the film to emphasise the connection with the Waldheim Affair from today’s viewpoint: with the Lincoln quotation at the beginning of the film and by pointing out how Alois Mock and Michael Graff – high-ranking representatives of the ÖVP – successfully stirred up resentment. Today, politicians would no longer conduct this discourse. Then the FPÖ voted to fund a monument for the murdered victims of Maly Trostinez, they praise Israel and like to speak of ‘Judeo-Christian’ Europe, although the Christians persecuted the Jews for centuries. At the same time, they say they want to put asylum-seekers in ghettos on the outskirts of cities. The dead weep in their graves when right-wing extremist politicians use the commemoration of them to advance their own politics.
In your film, you juxtapose thoroughly researched archive material with your off-camera voice, which spells out your subjective position. Your first sentence is, ‘What I remember best are the scenes I shot myself. That was in May 1986.’ How did you maintain the tension between subjectivity and objectivity?
From the beginning, I make it clear that this is a film from the position of an activist acting at that time. I think it is a function of cinema to take a position and to make clear the perspective you view things from – in contrast to television, which levels things, and to social media, which act within their own bubble. The power of cinema is to be resistant. In WALDHEIMS WALZER, I work solely with archive material that I view and analyse today.
Did you consider the idea of also shooting new material?
No. I definitely didn’t want to shoot current interviews with people remembering; I think they’re boring. Of course, I spoke with some of those involved back then, who took differing positions, but nothing new came of that. The Waldheim supporters of that time who are still alive continue to defend their standpoint, and on the other side nothing has changed either, of course. I think a film that remains historical provides a much better basis for speaking about the present than if a film questions the protagonists of that time, who are now old men and now indulge in reminiscences. I consciously say ‘men’, because WALDHEIMS WALZER is a film in which only men appear – also something that would be different today. The protagonists are all fathers and sons.
The sequence in which Gerhard Waldheim tries to defend his father during a hearing and, confronted with the arguments of his interlocutor, can only remain mute, is one of the most powerful moments in the film. Is this moment symbolic of the fault line that runs through post-war Austria between the war generation and those born later and which makes a new view of the past possible?
Gerhard Waldheim is a son who takes an astonishingly exposed position to defend his father. The fault line, after all, runs also within the generation of the sons, some of whom massively criticised their fathers in the course of the Waldheim Affair. The Waldheims stand for an idea of family in which the façade must be maintained at all costs. The material from this hearing is extraordinary and is the heart of the film. It was never broadcast, and yet it is preserved, uncut, in its full length; that has scarcity value. Because of the dramatic setting characteristic of a hearing, both sides are present in the same room. Gerhard Waldheim delivers a very impressive performance, and you have pity for him because he is so massively attacked. From my present point of view, I regard the Waldheim Affair as a generational conflict that shows how differently sons behave towards their fathers: Gerhard Waldheim defended his father aggressively.
On the other hand, the staff of the Jewish World Congress belong to his generation, too; they too are sons, in part of fathers who fled to the United States, or they belong to those families who have a bad conscience because they didn’t do enough to rescue their brothers and sisters. In regard to the Nazi past, there were things to work through for both sides. WALDHEIMS WALZER is also about how the Americans dealt with the topic: they saw in Waldheim primarily the UN General Secretary and that the affair threatened to taint this humanitarian institution and its policies in the 1970s, while the central theme in Austria was the lie that Austria was a victim.
At the beginning of the film, you quote Roland Barthes, who in 1955, on the occasion of the famous photo exhibition ‘The Family of Man’, wrote that the myth of the conditio humana was rooted in ‘a very old mystification that has always wanted to base history on nature’. In your film, you allude to nature, but also to ‘natural laws’ like family ties. What role does the concept of nature play in WALDHEIMS WALZER?
In the conservative value system Waldheim stands for, the family is considered something natural, but only in the traditional form: man – wife – child. You marry and stay together until death; that is a kind of ‘natural law’. Of course, I also allude to the ‘Heimatfilm’ (post-war films celebrating ‘home sweet homeland’), and beyond that to Austria’s tactic, which functioned wonderfully for a while, of presenting itself and its natural beauty as innocent. To depict nature as something innocent is a lie. But it is repeatedly used as a myth in order to deny history. Austrian films like SISSI practice this: in a later present-day, namely the post-war era, an earlier past (that of the monarchy) is created with young people, in order to omit the Nazi era. A brilliant chess move. Evil appears in the ‘Heimatfilm’, of course, but – just as in Nazi ideology – as modernity that comes from the city. That is contrasted with innocent nature in the form of landscape, folk costumes, farms and tradition. Precisely that is celebrated in Waldheim’s election campaign: brass bands, the whole family supporting him, the Christian values he places in the foreground.
It is already clear in JENSEITS DES KRIEGES how much you are interested in the facial expressions and gestures of your interlocutors. The same can be said about WALDHEIMS WALZER. How did you experience his body language when you viewed the material, and what role did it play in the film’s montage?
No other medium can show in image and sound a surface – the body, the gestures, the facial expressions and the glances – as well as film can. With Kurt Waldheim, it seems logical to direct our gaze to these forms of expression, especially because he makes such impressive use of his long fingers. With his body language, his way of wearing a suit, he is a good representative of the generation of politicians he belongs to. He seems like a civil servant who goes into politics; and that’s what he was as UN General Secretary. Waldheim wasn’t a Nazi, after all; he was an officer and always wanted to belong to the elite. Even though he came from rather modest circumstances, his family was always deeply rooted in the ÖVP. It was already clear to him in his young years that he would pursue a career in the ÖVP and not with the Nazis. In this point, he demonstrated a certain foresightedness and oriented himself accordingly. But during the period of National Socialism, he held an important position as an intelligence officer and knew a great deal. Whether fully or only half-consciously: it was surely clear to him why he remained silent about or downplayed that time.
Where and in which media did your extensive archive research begin?
At ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company), I began viewing all the materials from 1986 to the Historians’ Commission in 1988. But almost all the archived material is what was broadcast; what wasn’t broadcast, unfortunately, wasn’t kept. On the other hand, that is a circumstance that limits the research effort. Remembering always also has to do with forgetting, and it is actually very revealing to see what was broadcast and thereby archived. That makes Waldheims Walzer an examination of media history, as well: at that time, what did the various broadcasters think was important? What did they broadcast?
At the beginning of the Waldheim Affair, the conflict between the SPÖ and the ÖVP stood in the foreground, triggered by a question that seems completely irrelevant today: who was the traitor? Who raised the issue that Waldheim was keeping silent about something in his biography? The SPÖ soon learned that, in Austria, you fail if you point out a public figure’s Nazi past. It was interesting how the ORF journalists gradually changed their minds: at first totally patriotic, i.e., against ‘the East Coast’, they soon realised that what was coming from there was not all exaggerated accusations, but also facts.
After a comprehensive process of viewing the documents, I had to focus on a theme I consider relevant today. What’s interesting about working with archive materials is that you can work very analytically and thereby put these puzzle pieces in a new arrangement. You view something that is past and at the same time must face the task of ordering it in terms of current criteria. That was a new and fascinating experience.
After your ORF research, where and with what questions did you search beyond Austria’s borders?
I continued my research in Britain, the United States, Israel and France, in order to compare and contrast the Austrian material with other nations’ positions. By the way, in 2016, with the thirtieth anniversary of the Waldheim Affair, ORF showed several documentary films, all of which, however, presented only the Austrian view of the events. People like Israel Singer and Ilan Steinberg, who are still alive and who were active on the other side back then, were never interviewed. The approach to the topic has meanwhile definitely become more critical, but oddly enough, the Austrian view of the Waldheim Affair is still restricted to a national perspective. One of the pleasurable aspects of WALDHEIMS WALZER was to view the events in an international context and to examine reporting by the international media.
You didn’t shoot anything new for WALDHEIMS WALZER, but created the film solely from existing material, so the editing process with Dieter Pichler was surely different from what it had been in your projects till then.
In the summer of 2016, Sebastian Brameshuber and I viewed about 150 hours of preselected ORF material. Added to this was the material accessible through the Internet. But I often went to the archives in hopes of finding something more there, as well as to overcome the coldness of the Internet. I wanted to develop a feeling for archives, to spend time at ORF or BBC in the rooms where the material is stored and to talk with the people who work there. Archive material is very cold material, and I needed a long time to find a way to relate to it. Appropriating material you didn’t shoot yourself is a work process all its own. At first, I planned to cover a much larger stretch of time. Only when we started editing did I decide to concentrate on the months of the election campaign. In accordance with the sequence of events during the short period from March to June 1986, the film is driven forward very rapidly. This chronology is interrupted with associative digressions into various times and other events, placing the person of Kurt Waldheim and the affair in a broader context. Along with his history as UN General Secretary, the time at the middle of the 1980s is central: that’s when the Holocaust became such an important topic, also internationally. People forget that today. It was no coincidence that Waldheim did not stumble over his past until 1986, and not earlier. Whether in 1971/72, before he became General Secretary at the UN, those responsible neglected to check his life story or whether they knew about his role in the Wehrmacht but didn’t consider it important – these are open questions.
At the beginning of the film we see footage that you, as an activist in the Waldheim Affair, shot yourself in 1986. Did these images trigger a process of reflection about your own way of making pictures, as a kind of memory work within the memory work?
I come from a time when making a film was something special. Shooting is something very special for me and always connected with an interest or a mood. I have never been able to integrate a camera constantly in my life, so I seldom shoot. But when I do it, the material has special value for me. Part of the material I used in WALDHEIMS WALZER was shot by the filmmaker Michael Palm, who was on the protesters’ side back then. I asked colleagues for additional material, in vain. Today there is all sorts of cell phone footage of demonstrations, although it’s questionable how much of it is preserved.
After thirty years of making your own films and a revolution in how people deal with the medium, did your earlier camera gaze surprise you?
My gaze and my focus haven’t really changed. That greatly pleased me, especially since it took me a long time to take my own visual work seriously. THOSE WHO GO THOSE WHO STAY (2014) was the first time I exhibited my own pictures. Back then, I didn’t take filming seriously, I just shot spontaneously. Today I am proud of my 360° panning shot of the demonstrators chanting, ‘Waldheim, nein!’ and I linger on it for a long time, until I reach the man who chants, ‘Waldheim, ja!’ I only regret that, as an activist, I didn’t capture more with my own camera.
At the beginning of the film, you describe your role as ‘half demonstrating and half documenting’. Is that a premise that repeatedly shapes your work?
I’m someone who has good ideas when she’s emotional – much more than in front of a blank sheet of paper at my desk. I regard both as necessary, but I really like it when action dominates. I don’t want to observe a demonstration from the kerb in a long shot, but from the midst of things, close to the people and their faces.
I didn’t at all plan for WALDHEIMS WALZER to gain such political topicality from both an Austrian and an international viewpoint. I would prefer a different political situation. Especially in light of ‘fake news’, however, I regard this film as a manifestation of the fact that such documentary films, which don’t feature stars or spectacular images, have an important function and therefore must be shown in cinemas, because that’s where people come together and can discuss current issues. Analytical films are important – perhaps more today than in recent decades, when politics functioned more or less and we placed great hopes in Europe and the United States. I consider it very important to depict the past precisely in such a way that we have to think today of Charlottesville, Donald Trump, Hungary and the Austrian government.
(Interview: Karin Schiefer, December 2017)