May 25, 2013

Hannah Arendt

At the beginning of Margarethe Von Trotta's new film about the German philosopher (opening at Film Forum May 29), one fears many scenes of intellectuals talking. Actors tend to play intellectuals as grandstanding orators. They pontificate while eating pigs in a blanket at a cocktail party; they know no small talk that doesn't involve Kant. Thankfully, there are only a few such clunky scenes at the outset, and then the movie hits its stride by focusing on Arendt's coverage of the trial of nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Hannah Arendt was an important German Jewish philosopher, who studied with Heidegger (with whom she had an affair as a student), Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl. Before she got into hot water by covering the Eichmann trial, she wrote the very influential books, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. She escaped Nazi Germany, was captured and escaped a French detention camp, and emigrated to the US, where she taught at the New School. The movie focuses on her coverage of the trial for The New Yorker, and the fallout after what came to be known as "the controversy".
The movie smartly uses real footage of the trial to show us chilling glimpses of Eichmann himself, feigning stupidity and insisting he was just following orders. This is what made Arendt formulate her now famous thesis about the "banality of evil". According to her, Eichmann was not an extraordinary monster, but a middling bureaucrat who had no real animosity towards Jews and thought he was just doing his job. That is, she bought his crap lock, stock and barrel; but even so, she raised a valid point, which we understand all too well these days. Yet only about 20 years after the Holocaust, with many survivors still smarting, her idea of genocidal bureaucratic mediocrity was not received with open arms. It was not understood at the time what is obvious to us today, that most people who actively participate in mass murder, as Arendt assumed rightly, are not extraordinary, but actually the opposite: ignorant, mediocre, easily swayed idiots. One has just to watch the appalling footage of the most recent barbaric act of Islamic fundamentalists, who hacked to death a soldier in London, to clearly grasp her point. Today, we understand her concept of the banality of evil not only because we have lived it, through 9/11 and all subsequent murderous acts of devotion to warped ideologies, but because we have more historical distance and reams of information about the participation of regular people in the depravity, not only of the Holocaust, but of other modern genocides as well. Alas, this was not the case with Eichmann. He was the architect and executor of the Final Solution, not just a pencil pusher.
The movie depicts how, at the time, many Jews mistook Arendt's description of Eichmann as a petty bureaucrat as sympathetic to him. She was not. However, her reporting of a part of the trials that dealt with the collaboration of Jewish community leaders in the deportation of Jews to their deaths, fared even worse. Even though the testimony came from the trials themselves, Arendt was ostracized and excoriated, and lost some dear friends, for asserting that if these leaders had not dutifully collaborated (perhaps unknowingly at first) with the nazi deportation machine, there would have been more chaos and less Jews would have perished. All hell broke loose. She was accused of being a self-hating Jew and got threats and hate mail. Being a philosopher, the biggest gulf she was unable or uninterested in bridging was the one between the intellectual purity of her reasoning and the emotional, unfathomable humanity of the events. She was not there to give comfort or empathy, but to look evil in the eye. She made no moral judgements, but tried to understand what makes human beings evil. Even if she made a grave mistake in believing Eichmann's "just following orders" routine (the standard excuse of every living coward who has been ever accused of crimes against humanity, a phrase she coined), she did give us a truer understanding of the nature of human evil. She is a giant.
Played by Barbara Sukowa with riveting intensity, Arendt reaches a dramatic apex with a fantastic 8-minute speech she gives at the New School, defending her position. Her major philosophical points are clearly and well interspersed in this and other moments in the film.
I wish there would have been more of Arendt's conflict as a Jew. That German-Jewish duality which allowed her to forgive Heidegger for kissing nazi ass, and that perhaps understood all too well the organizational skills of Germans like Eichmann. She was a proud German, so how did she really feel about the Jewish question? Was she ever able to reconcile her pride in German culture to what these people did to her own?
In the end, for a movie about intellectuals, Hannah Arendt is a surprisingly strong, fascinating experience. It's a good thing too that Janet McTeer is there to lend her remarkable gifts as Mary McCarthy, who was Arendt's steadfast friend. Hannah Arendt may be the first movie that has ever made me want to go read a philosopher. It must be doing something right.

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