Portrait of a Thinker: A Review of ‘Hannah Arendt’

[caption id="attachment_9511" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Hannah Arendt (2012) Hannah Arendt (2012)[/caption]

 

Written by Rachael Johnson

Hannah Arendt was one of the leading political theorists of the 20th century. Her work encompassed political action, power, violence, totalitarianism, and the nature of human evil. A German Jewish academic, Arendt was forced to flee the land of her birth in 1933. She moved to France where she worked for Jewish refugee organizations before being interned as an “enemy alien” during the German occupation of the country. With her second husband, the left-wing philosopher and poet, Henrich Blucher, Arendt managed to secure safe passage to the United States in 1941. She became a naturalized citizen in 1950 and taught at several prestigious universities such as Princeton and The New School.

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Hannah Arendt (2012) is not a comprehensive, A-Z biopic of the political philosopher. The veteran German director focuses, instead, on a remarkable, turbulent period in Arendt’s personal and professional life in the early 60s. Specifically, it chronicles the academic’s reporting of the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for the mass deportation of Jews to the death camps during the Shoah. The film begins with the capture of Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. The war criminal had settled in South America in 1950 after escaping to Austria at the end of the war. But we are soon transported to New York and introduced to the woman who endeavored to examine the motivations of the man who implemented the “Final Solution.”

[caption id="attachment_9512" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Barbara Sukowa as Arendt Barbara Sukowa as Arendt[/caption]

 

Arendt covered the trial for The New Yorker and wrote a series of articles for the magazine. Her observations would be brought together in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt’s Eichmann was not a mythic monster but a mediocre man who entirely adhered to the murderous oaths and laws of the genocidal Nazi state. “Eichmann is no Mephisto,” Arendt observes in a Jerusalem café. According to the theorist, the war criminal was neither mentally ill nor personally driven by extreme racial prejudice. He possessed, instead, the mindset of a run-of-the-mill bureaucrat. Crucially, for Arendt, the war criminal was a conformist without imagination and remorse. He followed orders and never exercised independent thought. In such ways, Eichmann exemplified “the banality of evil.” Von Trotta skillfully weaves in film footage from the trial with the live action and we witness the real Eichmann: an inconspicuous-looking, bespectacled, middle-aged man armed with files. Arendt is struck by the war criminal’s language. Particularly telling for the philosopher is the statement: “Whether people were killed or not, orders had to be executed in line with administrative procedure.” The historical footage serves to reinforce Arendt’s thesis that the man was a disconnected, pen-pushing bureaucrat devoid of independent thought and moral responsibility. Arendt is repelled by the man and astonished by his manner and defense. As she will later say to friends in a heated debate, “You can’t deny the huge difference between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the mediocrity of the man.”

[caption id="attachment_9513" align="aligncenter" width="375"]Director Margarethe von Trotta Director Margarethe von Trotta[/caption]

 

The articles, understandably, proved deeply controversial and Von Trotta’s film chronicles the enraged responses and intense debate that followed their publication. As many in the Jewish community thought her interpretation served to minimize Eichmann’s evil, it was seen as a defense of the war criminal. Arendt’s criticism of certain Jewish council members during the Nazi era whom she accused of collusion was also read as victim-blaming. We see Arendt lose allies and receive hate mail from both strangers and neighbors. Old friends accuse her of being insensitive to Holocaust survivors and exhibiting a lack of empathy and love towards her own people. Arendt is not portrayed in von Trotta’s film as an unfeeling, unsympathetic character but as a truth-seeking intellectual. She is moved by harrowing testimony of Holocaust survivors (distressing footage from the trial is shown in the film) and haunted by their voices when she returns home to New York but she is also focused. Arendt is characterized as an independent thinker and a woman who did not define herself in terms of race and faith although she personally suffered persecution as a Jew in Nazi Germany. She tells Kurt Blumenfeld, a German-born Zionist friend now living in Israel, that she does not love peoples, only her friends.

[caption id="attachment_9514" align="aligncenter" width="420"]Elchmann at his trial Eichmann at his trial[/caption]

 

At a lecture at The New School at the end of the film, Arendt defends her thesis. Eichmann embodied a terrible “thoughtlessness,” the political philosopher underlines. In relinquishing his personhood, his individuality, he relinquished independent thought and moral judgement. Arendt states, “This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before.” Thinking is essential, for the philosopher: “I hope thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.” Arendt was accused of being an apologist for Eichmann but she thought that he was responsible for his failure to think. During the lecture, she expresses disgust at the label “self-hating Jew,” calling it a character assassination, and angrily insists that she never blamed Jewish people for their own deaths. She contends that the role of the Jewish leaders whom she accused of cooperation with Eichmann ultimately illustrated “the totality of the moral collapse” that the Nazis brought to Europe. Arendt believed, too, in the uniqueness of the Holocaust and thought that the war criminal should be executed for his genocidal crimes (he was hanged in 1962). “Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness,” she states at the close of the film.

It is, however, understandable that charges of insensitivity and arrogance were leveled against Arendt. Eichmann was responsible for the greatest crime–the murders of millions of innocent men, women and children–and many did not accept Arendt’s characterization of the man as a “clown” and “nobody.” They also thought her description of the man’s immeasurable evil as “banal” fantastical and offensive. Arendt’s words and tone were attacked. Her comments about certain Jewish council leaders wounded many. We may also question the philosopher’s reading of the historical figure. Was it really the case that the man who implemented the “Final Solution” was not primarily motivated by anti-Semitism? Pointing to recordings of Eichmann expressing hatred against Jews, there are historians today who underscore Eichmann’s anti-Semitism and Nazi fanaticism. The film does give voice to opposing arguments by Arendt’s contemporaries. Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), a German-born friend and New School philosopher, is deeply disturbed by her “abstract” thesis and stresses his calculated evil and central role in implementing mass murder.

[caption id="attachment_9515" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Students of Arendt Students of Arendt[/caption]

 

Arendt’s observations about people who commit crimes against humanity were, nevertheless, important and original. They have also proven influential. If you look at more historically recent crimes against humanity, such as those committed during the Rwandan genocide, her argument is arguably illuminating and persuasive. It is entirely clear that thoroughly ordinary human beings are capable of engineering and enacting the most terrible atrocities. It is an infinitely terrifying thought that people have the capacity to murder their friends, colleagues and neighbors but it is one that people today have come to intellectually “accept” with greater frequency. We understand that men in suits may plan mass murder behind their desks. In short, demystifying evil has become commonplace. Arendt’s essential conceptions about “the banality of evil” and horrifying bureaucratic “thoughtlessness” and remove have contributed to our intellectual understanding of crimes against humanity.

Because of the difficulties of representing the creative process on the screen, biopics about writers and artists can be decidedly dull and sterile but von Trotta’s film is never boring. It is a particularly difficult task capturing the thinking process on film but it is fascinating watching Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt observe, and listen to, Eichmann on the closed-circuit television in the press room in Jerusalem. The subject matter is both intellectually stimulating and important- examining evil is essential, ethical work for artists and thinkers- while the storm surrounding the publication makes for a deeply political and human drama. Sukowa is magnetic as Arendt. Although the philosopher was attacked for her dispassionate stance and tone as well as ironic manner, von Trotta’s Arendt is ultimately portrayed as a sharp-witted, warm and humane woman who enjoyed loving and supportive personal relationships. She is, incidentally, the antithesis of the stereotypical cold, sexless intellectual woman of misogynist writers and directors.

[caption id="attachment_9516" align="aligncenter" width="401"]With Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) With Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer)[/caption]

 

We are also given intimate insights into the academic’s private and professional life in America. Arendt’s New York circle, peopled by American bohemians and German-American intellectuals who had fled Nazism, is quite vividly depicted. Janet McTeer provides support as Mary McCarthy. McCarthy was a good friend of Arendt and McTeer gives the writer sensuality and spirit. Arendt’s affectionate but unconventional marriage to the errant Blucher (Axel Milberg), an engaging fellow academic, is tenderly portrayed. There are, also, shortcomings regarding performances and characterization. Arendt’s students are cheesily adoring and a couple of turns by the supporting players are quite embarrassing.

[caption id="attachment_9517" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Examining evil Examining evil[/caption]

 

Hannah Arendt is an involving portrait of the personal and intellectual life of the political theorist. Whether you believe that it offers a persuasive or hagiographic portrait of the thinker, von Trotta’s biopic chronicles an important debate in the history of modern political thought. Hopefully, it will (re)start conversations. Watching Hannah Arendt, you are also struck by how uncommon an experience it all is. There are not many biopics about thinkers and there are even fewer about history-making female intellectuals. Margarethe von Trotta, has, however, made other films about fascinating, iconoclastic figures in history (Rosa Luxemburg (1986), also starring Sukowa in the titular role, is one such biopic) and I hope the film encourages viewers to review or discover the veteran feminist director’s work.