“A KID LIKE JAKE”— Childhood Gender Nonconformity

“A KID LIKE JAKE”

Childhood Gender Nonconformity

Amos Lassen

Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” looks at early childhood gender nonconformity. Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are a Brooklyn couple with a young son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who is interested in things considered typically feminine.

 

I always find it interesting to see the ways that things change in the world of movies regarding major events in our society. We can look back at “Philadelphia” perhaps at what is considered the first major Hollywood production about AIDS and at other early films that include gay marriage. Some of what were once thought to be taboo topics are now finding their way to the screen as we have seen during the last ten years regarding transgender issues.

“A Kid Like Jake” is based on screenwriter Daniel Pearle’s successful play that shifts the focus to family and to the way that trans and gender nonconforming people fit into, and influence, wider society. It also deals with gender questioning children in a way that, refreshingly that puts children’s well being first and puts the academic debate to the side.

Jake (Leo James Davis) is four years old and engages with life as a whirl of action and emotion. His stay-at-home mother Alex and psychiatrist father Greg have done their best to give him every opportunity and are keen to get him into a good school. This becomes more complicated when district lines are redrawn, so Jake’s preschool teacher Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests trying to get him a scholarship. There is a lot of competition for these and being bright is not enough. The couple has never thought about Jake’s gender before, and their gradual recognition that Jake’s relationship with gender is unusual takes them to new places..

What is Jake’s gender and at four, does it really matter? The big questions about identity are largely set aside as Alex and Greg concentrate on what they can do to help their child right now. Ironically, they seem mostly to have been getting it right by not thinking about it – they haven’t tried to enforce rigid gender standards so Jake has a mixture of toys and gets to enjoy the Disney princess paraphernalia that he so loves.

 

Once the subject is raised, both parents become anxious about it, largely out of concern at what the world might have in store for Jake as he gets older. Telling him that he can’t be a princess for Halloween leads to tantrums. Alex fights her own instinct to do whatever will make Jake happiest right away as she tries to urge him into more masculine behavior. Greg wants him to see a psychiatrist who specializes in gender issues, but Alex is appalled by this. As they increasingly turn on one another, she blames Greg’s inability to be a sufficiently manly role model for Jake’s difference.

The film’s strength is in the positioning of trans issues within a wider climate of gender anxiety. As Greg rails against the idea that he needs to play sports to defend his own gender identity, Alex’s mother criticizes her for letting down feminism by abandoning her career as a lawyer for the sake of full-time child rearing; and Alex wrestles with the fear that difficulty in conceiving another child undermines her femininity. In a low moment, she lashes out at Judy for being a lesbian, suggesting that what she sees in Jake is all about politics. Meanwhile, Judy’s mixed-race relationship is a reminder of other one-time taboos that are now seen as less relevant by history.

Young Davis is quite the actor and he brings freshness and naturalism to the role of Jake. Danes is quite good as Alex. She has the rough job of winning over the audience while being quite unpleasant at times. Her chemistry with Parsons makes us root for the couple even as they fight – there always seems to be something between them that’s worth fighting for. Director Silas Howard does an excellent job of standing back and letting his actors do their thing. I love that the story is told in a way that anyone who’s raised a child will be able to relate to. The central subject is presented as part of a much larger conversation about gender roles and how individuals find their way through life in the absence of longstanding traditional rules. This is a sensitive and humane take on what it means to deal with issues like this these days.

“Foucault at the Movies” by Patrice Maniglier and Dork Zabunyan— A Philosopher and Film

Maniglier, Patrice and Dork Zabunyan, “Foucault at the Movies”, translated by Clare O’Farrell, Oxford University Press, 2018.

A Philosopher and Film

Amos Lassen

I do not remember that Michel Foucault was a film bug but that could be just because I did not pay attention; something that is hard to do when dealing with a great mind. I now know that his “work on film, although not extensive, compellingly illustrates the power of bringing his unique vision to bear on the subject and offers valuable insights into other aspects of his thought.” This new volume brings together all of Foucault’s commentary on film, some of it available for the first time in English and with important contemporary analyses and further extensions of this work.

Here we see Foucault’s writings on film “in the context of the rest of his work as well as within a broad historical and philosophical framework.” They show how Foucault’s work directly or indirectly inspired both film critics and directors in different ways and discuss his ideas in relation to significant movements within film theory and practice. Included are film reviews and discussions by Foucault as well as his interviews with the prestigious film magazine “Cahiers du cinema” and other influential journals. We have his dialogues with the noted French feminist writer Hélène Cixous and film directors Werner Schroeter and René Féret. Foucault emphasizes the relationship of film to history, the body, power and politics, knowledge, sexuality, aesthetics, and institutions of internment (all of which are his areas of expertise).

We have Foucault speaking in his own voice and saying that “the art of living” means “that psychology must be killed; that the body must be dismantled; that memory must function without remembering; and that passion is more interesting than love.” It s fascinating that what he has to say about movies increases our understanding of Foucault’s thought. This is quite a stimulating looked at a contribution from Foucault that has been not dealt with.

“Diary of a Puerto Rican Porno” by Phil St. John— A Pornographer Speaks

St. John, Phil. “Diary of a Puerto Rican Porno”, CreateSpace, 2018.

A Pornographer Speaks

Amos Lassen

I must say that I enjoy gay porn as much as the next guy so when I received this book, the name Phil St. John was not new to me. I knew it was an alias and I knew some of the back-story—- Phil St. John, acted in gay adult movies while at film school in San Francisco. Later, in Manhattan’s East Village, he read scripts for United Artists by day while making porn loops for the Mob’s Times Square peep shows at night. His first porn blockbuster, “Getting It”, was distributed by Falcon Films. It had the largest cast of the day. St. John, aka Phil Tarley, is a member of the American Film Institute, and of the Photographic Arts Council, Los Angeles. He writes about contemporary art, pop culture, and photography and curates art shows in LA where he founded the biennial Round Hole Square Peg, an international survey of LGBTQ photography shown at Photo LA and The LA Art Show. His own personal political and ethnographic queer video is housed in The New York Public Library’s permanent collection and has been screened in film festivals and museums, including the American Film Institute and the Guggenheim Museum. In 2009, St. John was inducted into the Gay Porn Hall of Fame for his 25-year producing and directing career.

Tarley’s writing and photography have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, The WOW Report, the Advocate, Adult Video News, Spunk and American Photo Magazine. His second book, Crazy for Cuba: Notes from An Underground Traveler, is due to be published this fall 2018.

“Diary of a Puerto Rican Porno” is an action-adventure, sexually outrageous fiction filmmaking odyssey. However, let me clarify the word fiction here. Undoubtedly some of what you read here actually happened. Phil St. John takes his boyfriend and a porn star bottom to the land of the “big tops” to make two new tropical penis movies. They are to be shot back-to-back in the jungles near San Juan, Puerto Rico. Of curse, this does not happen without any trouble. We have knife fights, sexual intrigue, nervous breakdowns, tropical depressions, secret marijuana smuggling, and true love.

I must say that St. John is authentic in his writing and that is what makes him so much fun to read. As absurd as a situation is, it could have happened. Now this is smut but it is tasteful or shall we say what I call literary erotica. The characters make you fall in love and in lust with them and as flawed as they are, is the scene filled with smut. (You have to love it). We see what happens when the camera is both rolling and not rolling and the creativity it takes to make a porn film (Challenge me on that one).

You might be surprised to learn that not all porn models are nice guys or cooperative while making a film. Yes, they have egos and each has a unique personality. You might be even more surprised to learn that many require not only reassurance but also drugs, alcohol, bribes, and lots of on the spot psychotherapy as well as creativity. St. John lets us into a world that others will not. This is a fun read although I am not sure it qualifies as literature.

“ELDORADO”— The Difficult Questions

“Eldorado”

The Difficult Questions

Amos Lassen

Director Markus Imhoof brings together the intensely personal with the sociopolitical in his latest documentary, “Eldorado” the story of Europe’s modern refugee failures that he balances against his recollection of his own experience of his family offering shelter to a young Italian girl during the Second World War. Since what is happening today is the biggest since then, it’s a fair point of comparison and one which gives an additional emotional charge as he returns again and again to the concept of who we consider to be “us” and how we put “I” first no matter what.

Others have dealt with this in the past but Imhoof opens the debate to consider the economics of the situation with the personal touchstone ensuring that his film retains a character of its own. As Imhoof looks through old family photos, he recalls how their ‘adopted’ refugee Giovanna looked when he first saw her. This echoes the modern footage of medics triaging the newly rescued – many of who are weak from exhaustion or simply bewildered by circumstance. He describes Giovanna’s story, a story like other stories. We see the human urge to help is and the dedication of those whose lives are marked by the regular pick up of people in over laden boats is clear and is not the hoped-for paradise. A refugee currently in Italy talks about paradise again, and his current predicament in what he refers to as ‘purgatory’.

Away from the boats, the director speaks into a camera at one of the many makeshift camps that have sprung up and which are run by mafia capos, who get rich from the refugee men’s labor in the tomato fields. He goes back to Switzerland, the border between his homeland and Italy scarcely to consider the way that refugees are fulfilling much-needed roles in society such as caring for the elderly but they are also snared by red tape and sent back to the place they fear most. Imhoof digs into the economics. How the product of the slave labor of the tomato pickers will likely be bought by their relatives back home using what little money those working in the fields can send them, or the way that European Union milk production is killing the ability of farmers in Africa to make a profit. These are, perhaps simplified and small examples, but they say a great deal about a global trading ring that creates a vicious circle for Africa.

There is a sprawling quality to the film, and the two time-period narrative takes a while to find a smooth flow, but Imhoof makes sure to it all and he gives a good balance of factual information and personal testimony, both from himself and others.

The film is about both the movement of people and the movement of profit and while the bank balance of Europe may come out looking good, it is morally bankrupt. Halfway through the film, “an Italian humanitarian compares the journey of an African refugee to that of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem. First there is the hell of traveling north through Libya, crossing the Mediterranean, second there is purgatory, arriving in Italy and then finally the paradise of arriving in Northern Europe.”

Director Markus Imhoof shares his childhood in Switzerland and his relationship with Giovanna, a young Italian refugee his family adopted during the war. The politics that tore him and his newfound sister apart are used as a way to look at the journey of African migrants arriving in Europe. Imhoof refers back to his perspective as a child, the confusion, trying to figure out why there are borders and why some countries are stable and others are not.

We see the stages that the refugees experience upon arriving in Europe. The director spends time with the Italian coast guard responsible for rescuing them from seas and making sure they are healthy. Most of these people are shell-shocked or relieved to be on dry land but their expectations of Europe are soon broken as they try to make a living. We go into the refugee centers where the newcomers await the verdict on their destiny. Some are deported and others find menial work. Those who refuse deportation are welcomed by the mafia in work camps, where they live in squalor and slave for pennies. We see the ugly realities of the refugee crisis with Imhoof asking the difficult questions and answering them with humanity.

“SOBIBOR”— For the 75th Anniversary

“Sobibor”

For the 75th Anniversary

Amos Lassen

 Sobibor was the smallest-scale facility of the six killing centers that the Nazis built in occupied Poland and until ten years ago, Russians had no idea that the place ever existed. It is interesting that Sobibor was so obscure since the camp is tied to a dramatic story of heroism: In 1943, Russian inmates led a successful escape, one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust (the other was the same year in Treblinka).

Following the Sobibor uprising, however, the Nazis razed the camp so that there was little more than a forest clearing remaining in the area where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews. Ten years ago the Russian government led a commemoration campaign that ended this year with the 75th anniversary of the uprising and the release of this film. The two-hour Russian-language film stars Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors. It has an international cast and exciting visuals but what is really important is that the film goes into fine detail and nuance mores o than any other film made about the camp.

This is quite a gory film. The opening scene features hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber. There’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions. Because of this it is a difficult film to watch. In the days before the uprising, its conspirators suffered violence and feared betrayal by other inmates — including Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police. This is evident throughout the film and informs every step of the film’s main protagonist, the partisan and Red Army veteran Alexander Pechersky (Khabenskiy) who led the revolt. and whose character is played by Khabenskiy.

The film also has a scene of a kapo practicing the Nazi salute (this refers to Herbert Naftaniel, a German Jew nicknamed Berliner. According to testimonies from Sobibor, Naftaniel was crueler to inmates than the German and Ukrainian guards. It also shows the hostility harbored by some Russian Jewish soldiers toward other Jews, whom they call “kikes” in the film).

Under Pechersky, about twelve men and a few women eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily assassinating several camp officers, who were lured into a trap with promises of possessions taken from victims. With weapons they stole, the rebels then engaged the watchtower guards as more than 300 people exited through the main gate. Only 57 escapees, including Pechersky, were not murdered in the manhunt afterwards.

“Sobibor” explores the Nazi camp’s internal politics.We see that eleven German officers were killed in the uprising. Yet while these acts of bravery at Sobibor highlight the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, they also show how Jews’ relative obedience at Sobibor created total complacency among the Nazis and we know that they were vigilant, disciplined and effective in countering threats by enemies, partisans and even prisoners of war.

We see both the dehumanization and mechanized killing and the heroism. The film also looks at perceived passivity, exploring the effect of hard labor, hunger and trauma and the deception employed by the Nazis to trick the condemned into submissively entering the gas chambers, which the killers said were showers. Pechersky, a Red Army prisoner of war who was transferred to Sobibor because he was Jewish and he soon realized that no one was meant to survive the camp. Others believed they were about to be resettled.

Sobibor showed the will to never surrender to those who want to destroy us said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “That moment more than any other marked the turning point in the history of the Jewish people.”

“Sobibor” generally treads lightly through politics and devotes very little to how Sobibor had Ukrainian guards or that many of the escapees were betrayed by Poles. Nonetheless, the story of Sobibor “is not only a Jewish story, but also a story about the best and the worst of us as human beings. Its message needs to be universal.”

(English subtitles not yet available)

“SUNSET”— Intrigue and Terror in Budapest

“Sunset”

Intrigue and Terror in Budapest

Amos Lassen

We finally have Hungarian director László Nemes’ long-awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Son of Saul”. “Sunset” takes us into a Middle European heart of darkness and a fever dream. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is the first-person protagonist of the film, arriving in Budapest from Trieste and looking for work in a posh hat shop which was once owned by her now-deceased parents. The new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), is not happy to have her at the shop but will ultimately relent to Irisz’s immediate dissatisfaction.

We understand that Irisz is looking for her long-lost brother. She’ll find him but again not be to her liking. It is as if she is in dogged pursuit of things she doesn’t want to catch. Unfortunately, Jakab gives a mono-expression performance to a one-dimensional character who seems nothing more than an excuse to take the camera somewhere else.

However, Budapest looks amazing and Nemes gives us a full view, with crowds of people, trams and coaches. There is a sense of life brimming and of history happening, violently and darkly, perhaps just out of sight. As Irisz’s quests continue, she becomes involved in various adventures: an uprising of anarchists; an attack from coachman Gáspár (Levente Molnár). She witnesses a half-mad countess being brutalized by a sadistic young man from Vienna. Hot air balloons are launched and a huge tent is being put up.

The shop has something going on, perhaps being a front for high-end prostitution (something Irisz immediately wants to investigate by getting chosen to be the girl that ‘delivers the hat’). We always sense a creeping dread that danger is about to breakthrough the frankly flimsy veneer of Hungarian civilization. A final baffling shot suggests everything was all some kind of allegory but it is very hard to remember what is what.

This is a very mysterious and even bizarre film in many ways; it is an occult mystery drama about the fin-de-siècle anxieties of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It takes place in Budapest in 1913, with a distinctly disturbing coda in the wartime trenches, a setting that is itself ambiguously real or imagined. All the fears and premonitions of war and the overturning of an old order are projected on the hat store in the city.

Irisz’ parents died in a fire at the store after which it was rebuilt and re-established as a lucrative concern, keeping the brand name of Leiter by a businessman Brill. The catastrophe that killed her mother and father happened when she was two, after which she was placed with a family in Vienna, where she has been working with a milliner. But now she has returned, on a mission to find the truth about her brother, whose existence in Budapest is a shadowy and. He is thought to have caused the fire himself, to have made an attempt on the life of Brill and murdered a certain count whose wealthy but disturbed and drug-addicted widow now hosts fashionable musical soirees for the elite.

Gaspar knows where Irisz’s brother may be found: he is now involved with a criminal gang of robbers who have what could be anarcho-nationalist or separatist leanings, resenting the haughty German-speaking royalty from Vienna. And the awful truth is that Brill continues to cultivate a special relationship with this alien ruling class. It is not simply that the royals are the most prestigious hat-buying customers; Brill keeps beautiful young women as his milliners, the most favored of whom will be selected as an employee of the royals, perhaps as a kind of lady-in-waiting, although the drama suggests something more sordid.

The camera moves through the city and through the drama as if in a dream. There is no traditional structure and variation of pace that might accompany a conventional drama someone progressively discovering the truth.

The film is a sumptuous period piece where horrors exist around every corner. It won’t take long before audiences guess where Írisz’s path is leading. The question, as ever with these kinds of things, is: just how far she will go. The real mystery, I think, is what Irisz is a symbol of. There are many ambiguities, almost to the point of damaging its basic cogency yet however disorientated I became while watching the film, I did not become frustrated. I did, however, begin to backtrack and second-guess myself just a little, which somewhat diminished the experience but I do plan to see the film again.

“I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS”— An Attack on Romanian Holocaust Denial

“’I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians’”

An Attack on Romanian Holocaust Denial

Amos Lassen

Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care…” is an extraordinary opus that can be overly didactic and unapologetically intellectual as well as startling and provocative. In a military museum, in front of a glass case filled with old rifles and guns, actress Ioana Iacob tells us that she will be playing the role of Mariana Marin, a theatrical director who has been given the job of designing a public spectacle relating to Romanian history. Mariana is mounting a carefully researched reenactment of a much disputed 1941 atrocity, in which the collaborationist leader Ion Antonescu ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Jews following the capture of Odessa by Romanian troops.

We see Mariana spend her days choosing costumes, coaching the “cast,” selecting sound effects, and so on. At night she walks around her apartment semi-naked reading and researching, while her personal life also intrudes as she worries she may be pregnant by her married pilot boyfriend (Serban Pavlu). Some of the cast brings their own agendas, like the old man who refuses to work alongside the Roma actors, or the young guys who are a little too eager to wear SS uniforms but who refuse playing Soviet soldiers. 

The project also brings Mariana into conflict with Movila (Alexandru Dabija), a city official nervous about potential backlash over the show’s “anti-Romanian” content. The staging of the reenactment is shot on garish video as though for a news report and serves as a function in the investigation of truth and falsehood, calling attention to the reality of the spectacle, and to the non-actor spectators whose reactions seem to be real. There is also archival footage and photographs that serve as an indictment of Romania’s refusal to face up to its uglier episodes. Holding everything together is Iacob’s performance.

With the reenactment, Mariana hopes to catch the conscience of a population sliding amnesia. This is an intelligent wake-up call, a film that leaves the viewer smarter at the end and sadder and terrified. It is easy for people without principles to act barbarously if they do not care how history will view them. And it is easy not to care about how history will view someone, if he does not care about history at all.

The narrative structure of “Barbarians” is quite simple with Mariana working on the re-enactment that took place before Romania joined the Nazi’s WWII Axis alliance.  It was beforehand when authoritarian dictator Antonescu ordered over a hundred thousand Jews killed in Western Ukraine, primarily in the city of Odessa. The campaign against the Jewish people in Romania continued after Antonescu joined the Axis, but this specific action demonstrated how quickly the nation had turned to anti-Semitism (and fascism) like much of mainland Europe.  

The film stays with you because of how even after the 80 years, the prejudice and fears that Mariana researched, are still deeply rooted in some (not all) of the Romanian actors taking part in the reenactment and the audience who watch it.  

“THE INTERPRETER”— An Odd Couple Road Movie

“The Interpreter”

An Odd Couple Road Movie

Amos Lassen

The Second World War’s impact on the children of Nazi leaders has been examined in several documentary films but here is a fictional look at the potentially equally devastating inheritance of the child of a victims of Nazi atrocities and the child of a father who ordered them. Peter Simonischek plays Georg Gruber, an ageing ladies man who receives an unexpected visitor, Ali Ungár (Jirí Menzel) who has read a book by Georg’s father, a former SS officer. He realizes that Georg’s grandfather was responsible for the deaths of his parents and this causes him to pay a call intent on revenge. Things don’t go according to plan but there are words between the two men.

The meeting awakens something in Georg and he decides to pay Ali a return visit using him as a translator as he makes a tour of the places his SS father wrote about. Ali senses the opportunity to perhaps find out more about his own family and the scene is set.

Director Martin Sulik first focuses on the comedy of the situation using Ali’s slightly stiff approach to life in stark contrast to Georg’s old rogue as they encounter a couple of hitchhikers and flirtations. As the film progresses, it begins to consider the weight of history and the comparisons between those things that are remembered and left over and those that are forgotten or left behind.

Menzel and Simonischek have good chemistry and though the characters may seem little more than ‘types’ initially, Sulik finds that the way that both men have been shaped by their lives – one perhaps valuing connection so deeply because of what he lost early, while the other’s vibrancy may hide a loneliness that even he is not fully aware of.

As if director Sulik was worried we might not think he is taking things seriously enough, he gives us quite a change at the end of the film. This emphasizes the importance of listening to history if we don’t want it to have to repeat itself.

“THE RESISTANCE BANKER”— Slow and Tense

“The Resistance Banker”

Slow and Tense

Amos Lassen

Directed by Joram Lursen, “The Resistance Banker” is the real-life account of Walraven van Hall (Barry Atsma), a Dutch banker who defrauded the Germans of millions, which he then funneled to the Dutch Resistance. He is helped by his brother Gijs (Jacob Derwig).

Being set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, we see regular citizens trying to live their lives under German heel something we have not seen much of in the past. The film is propelled by gritty realism and an authentic recreation of a Nazi occupied country making this an impressive film.

We follow the Van Halls as the two set out to try to slow the German war machine by siphoning money out of the bank and to the resistance. Things are not that simple and what we have is a methodically paced game of cat and mouse as the Resistance tries to stop the Nazis as they learn what they’re doing. They must try to remain undetected and checking if there are any spies in their midst.

The film is told entirely in Dutch but I understand that in the United States, the film is dubbed. “The Resistance Banker” is gripping thriller but it assumes a bit more familiarity with the story than is probably reasonable, yet it’s still a competently made and interesting World War II drama.

The film is too slow in the beginning and the construction of the underground bank by Wally and Gijs is a little too easy. This does not build the tension and sense of risk that we would expect but it all picks up in the second half. The growing Resistance needs more money and the brothers have to procure from somewhere. The increasingly suspicious Nazis come to realize exactly how that Resistance is being financed. There is a grand scheme to exchange promissory notes for counterfeits benefiting most from the built-up excitement about what is going on. Perhaps if there was a bit more energy and not as many tense moments, the film would fare better but at any rate, I found it totally engrossing.

“THE WALDHEIM WALTZ”— Revisiting Karl Waldheim

“The Waldheim Waltz”

Revisiting Karl Waldheim

Amos Lassen

Given the current whitewashing of national culpability in Nazi collaborations, it’s time that someone make a film investigating Austria’s collective whitewashing of its Nazi-era past. And someone did— Ruth Beckermann who in her incisive documentary “The Waldheim Waltz” treats former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as a poster boy of the phenomenon. Using only footage from the 1970s and ’80s, some of which she shot herself while protesting Waldheim’s successful bid for the Austrian presidency, Beckermann reveals the timeline of revelations detailing her subject’s Nazi affiliations, and how a majority of the electorate in 1986 still voted him into office.

“The Waldheim Waltz” has a sense of urgency made more pressing given political developments not just in Austria but Poland and Hungary as well. While Secretary General of the United Nations between 1972 and 1982, Waldheim was “the man who the world trusts,” whose broad smile and expressive hands made us feel like he was one of us. There were a few at the time quietly questioning his record during World War II, but Waldheim stuck to the story that he was drafted into the Nazi army like tens of thousands of other Austrians, was wounded in 1941, and sat out the rest of the War concentrating on his studies. Only when he declared his candidacy for president in 1985 did investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin begin digging into the records, where he discovered that Waldheim’s claims were untrue.

When Czernin’s article came out, Waldheim said that it a smear campaign and took refuge in the popular argument that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression. Like most politicians after the War, he spoke of the hard-won ethical and moral rebuilding of Austria following its liberation. He ignored that many Austrians welcomed the Anschluss. The case against Waldheim really picked up steam in March 1986, when the World Jewish Congress in New York gave a press conference presenting documents together with a now infamous photo of the former head of the UN in Nazi uniform in 1943.

The evidence was devastating, and it kept on coming. We learned that Waldheim was involved in murderous anti-partisan activities and his claim that he did not know about the 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki deported to extermination camps was proven false. Waldheim hit back, denying any culpability in the Nazi war machine, using veiled anti-Semitic language in their appeal to true Austrians and their historic assertion of collective victimhood. Waldheim declared he was the most slandered candidate in his nation’s history.

Beckermann counts down the days to the election, with each one bringing new revelations. About the only thing missing from “The Waldheim Waltz” is a brief discussion of Waldheim’s legacy at the UN aside from Arafat being seated in the chamber. Beckermann picks apart the man and the machine that supported him.

“The Waldheim Waltz” fits right in with our current era of right-wing populist leaders, from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Heinz-Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz in Austria, plus many other nations. Besides a few flashbacks to Waldheim’s decade at the U.N., from 1972 to 1981, Beckermann keeps her focus almost entirely within the day-to-day chronology of his 1986 domestic election bid. The majority of material she uses is culled from second-hand newsreel and TV footage, with intermittent clips of self-shot video and stills from inside a homegrown protest group. The director herself provides the voiceover commentary, showing how the Waldheim affair destroyed Austria’s delusion of having been the first victims of the Nazis.

This is a film about national collective amnesia. Unlike Germany, Austria quietly dropped investigations into its former senior Nazis and never paid compensation to their victims. This helps explain why, in the face of worldwide scandal and criticism, Waldheim still won the presidency in 1986. However, his reputation was fatally damaged and his political career finished. In 1987, after a State Department investigation concluded he had been closely involved in Nazi war crimes, he was barred from travel to the U.S.

What Beckermann did not share is that the CIA had long been aware of Waldheim’s full wartime record but she kept her narrative firmly trained on Austrian national complicity. Nonetheless, this is a personal breakdown of a fascinating episode in recent European history with cautionary lessons for modern voters.