The Waldheim Waltz dances with two left feet

C Documentary
Directed by Ruth Beckermann

I saw this documentary before its screening in last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I then wrote this review, but held it back, waiting until the film had a theatrical run in the Bay Area. That has not yet happened. But I have just discovered that it’s streaming on Amazon. Since you now can see it at home, I’m posting the review.

How can a documentary with such a musical name be so emotionally remote – especially when it examines a fascinating true story? In 1985 and ’86, while former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was running for the office of Austria’s President, news of his Nazi past made international headlines. It’s a fascinating and frightening story, yet Ruth Beckermann’s film feels flat.

Waldheim was a respected diplomat, having served two terms running the United Nations, when he ran for Austria’s highest office. Then the World Jewish Council provided damning testimony about his service during World War II. There was no proof that he committed atrocities himself, but as an officer, he was often in places where atrocities took place. His immediate commanding officer was convicted of war crimes and executed.

Austrians often describe themselves as the Nazis’ first victims, but during the war, many enthusiastically embraced National Socialism. Like many young men, Waldheim was drafted into the German army. He never denied that. But his autobiography skipped a lot of the war.

Aside from a few old clips and photographs, Beckermann’s documentary sticks to the events of 1985 and ’86, consisting almost entirely of Austrian and American television news footage. She also includes black-and-white video footage of anti-Waldheim street protests that she shot at the time. All of these sources are pre-HD video, so the images look awful on a big screen – a forgivable trait in a documentary. Beckermann wisely used pillarboxing to keep the video’s 1.33×1 aspect ratio; if she had altered the images to fit the wide screen, it would have looked much worse.

Feeling much longer than its 93 minutes, Waltz cuts back and forth between World Jewish Council press conferences, American Congressional hearings, and interviews with Waldheim where he avoids saying anything that might incriminate him.

We learn nothing about Waldheim except his Nazi past and his skill as a politician. Why couldn’t the film have gone into detail about his UN service. Did he behave in ways that suggested anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry? Or did he go in the other direction, perhaps compensating for the sins of his youth?

A good documentary needs to provide more than just information. It must connect with you on an emotional level. Despite the powerful subject matter, The Waldheim Waltz has only one or two powerful moments. In the strongest of these, a group of Austrians proudly announce their own horrible anti-Semitism. You get the feeling that Waldheim may have won the election because he was a Nazi. That scene, shot a little more than 40 years after the end of Holocaust, made my skin crawl.

The Waldheim Waltz needed more complexity. It also needed more skin crawling.