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Short Take: The Waldheim Waltz

(Ruth Beckermann, Austria, Menemsha Films, Opening October 19)

During his campaign to become President of Austria in the 1980s, records surfaced that Kurt Waldheim, the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations, had served in Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht during World War II—a fact that he had previously denied. Using contemporary archival material, including footage she herself had shot, the Austrian documentarist Ruth Beckermann shows the astonishing development of events: Waldheim won the election and completed a full presidential term, despite indisputable proof that he had been present at killings and deportations in Yugoslavia and Greece. He had been doing the same as everyone else, he earnestly reasoned in interviews, and had not participated directly.

Beckermann’s documentary makes it brilliantly clear how all of this was possible: Waldheim believed he was not guilty in the same way Austria believes it is not guilty. It has never reflected on its Nazi past the way Germany has, and has now, seven decades later, instead elected a far-right government. The director is doubly present within the film, as the narrator reflecting on the story and as one of the activists shown protesting against Waldheim. She uses film as a means of personal involvement in her country’s politics, somewhat recalling Mila Turajlic’s The Other Side of Everything. Offering an examination of the workings of the governance and media of another time, but equally pertinent to today’s public discourse, The Waldheim Waltz makes for a complex and impassioned portrait of one society’s state of mind.

Tina Poglajen is a freelance film critic. She likes going to film festivals.