Director/Coscreenwriter: Margarethe von Trotta
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In this age of extreme practicality, the pursuit of a philosophy education may seem a useless self-indulgence. Yet, there is nothing more useful to an individual than being trained to really think. It is encouraging to know that as our public discourse seems to be increasingly prone to magic thinking and opinion as fact, the actual number of students getting formal training in philosophy is growing.
It was my great luck that my postsecondary education at a Jesuit university required me to immerse myself in philosophy to graduate. It was also my misfortune that I never encountered the writings of German political theorist Hannah Arendt. Even though I was a political science major, her seminal works on power and totalitarianism were not discussed in the classes I took. Perhaps I took the wrong classes. Perhaps sexism was at work. Perhaps her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil made her just too hot to handle. Whatever the reason, I came to Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt as ignorant of this woman and thinker as the average person seeking to know more.
Arendt, a secular German Jew, had a momentous early life. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg and carried on an affair with her professor, Martin Heidegger, one of the great names in philosophy whose Being and Time is a standard text. She hit up against German anti-Semitism when she was disqualified from securing a university teaching post and soon fled to France in 1933. There she married Heinrich Blücher, a German poet and Marxist philosopher, but did not escape detention at Gurs, a camp the Vichy government used to hold non-French Jews. She escaped after only a few weeks and managed to obtain forged visas to get to the United States in 1941 with Blücher and her mother. She wrote for Jewish newspapers during the war and helped Zionist organizations to relocate young Jewish survivors of the war to Palestine. The remainder of her life was dedicated to teaching and writing, beginning with The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.
Hannah Arendt concentrates on the years 1961-1963. In 1961, William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson), the editor of The New Yorker, hired Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) to cover Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem for crimes against the Jewish people. It took her two years to complete work on what became a five-part series in the magazine, commencing in February 1963, and her book, also published in 1963. While the trial and the violently negative reaction to Arendt’s report certainly are dramatic, the challenge for von Trotta and her coscreenwriter Pam Katz was to sustain a dramatic throughline for someone who, in essence, simply observed, thought, and wrote. To do this, they focused on Arendt’s personal life—her happy marriage to Blücher (Alex Milberg) and her friendships, which included American author Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and philosopher Hans Jonas (Ulrich Noethen), who attended Marburg with her and taught with her at New York’s New School for Social Research. There are several scenes of Arendt arguing politics with friends in German, and we end up feeling like non-German-speaking McCarthy at these gatherings—lost.
First, we aren’t introduced to any of the characters surrounding Arendt, so if you don’t know Arendt’s history and circle of friends, you’re just out of luck until the script happens to cough up some information. I had never heard of Gurs before this film, so when Heinrich tells Hannah that she was right to leave Gurs when she did to assuage her feelings of guilt about abandoning Europe’s Jews and freedom fighters, I thought he was talking about a lover or husband! It wasn’t until much later in the film that I got the information that corrected my mistake. We learn almost nothing about Heinrich himself, though Katz and von Trotta keep hinting that he may be having affairs with Hannah’s assistant Lotte (Julia Jentsch) and a woman named Charlotte (Victoria Trauttmansdorff) about whom I still have no information because I haven’t looked her up. It seems that through its assumptions of knowledge on the part of the audience, this movie was intended for an elite or German crowd, though its deep adherence to the stodgy conventions of the biopic would argue otherwise. It may be Katz’s inexperience as a screenwriter that led to so many creaky choices, such as the allusions to Heinrich’s possible adultery that are never resolved or the hissworthy villainy of Commentary writer and editor Norman Podhoretz (Matthias Bundschuh) in condemning Arendt as a woman without feelings. As though to counter that frequent slam on Arendt, it seems the script bends over backwards to show that she had a lot of feeling.
What works best in this film and what makes it worth seeking out is the very thing that may have made it seem undramatic in the eyes of its creators—the ideas Arendt formulated about the banality of evil. It is, perhaps, human nature to want to separate ourselves from people who commit great crimes and deny that we have the capacity to commit such evil ourselves. Arendt challenged the notion that only inhuman demons commit genocide by characterizing Eichmann as an efficient bureaucrat dedicated to helping Hitler accomplish the Final Solution without thinking about the moral implications of his actions. He was an ideologue whose one-track mind allowed him to carry out the deportations to the concentration camps, denying that he killed anyone—that part of the Final Solution just wasn’t his job. Arendt saw him as a mediocrity who had lost the ability to think, though his efficiency in transporting Jews to their doom was anything but mediocre.
Further, she had the temerity, the “self-hating” gall to suggest that the Jewish Councils that assisted in this efficiency should come in for condemnation, too. It is this assertion, accurate reporting with which we are assisted in sympathizing by having a Jewish member of the trial gallery curse the councils, that most riled people as an example of blaming the victim. Arendt lost friends, including Hans Jonas, over this cold-hearted assessment. Questions of appeasement are always hard to resolve—for example, if Neville Chamberlain hadn’t appeased Hitler, would he have been able to avert so much destruction—but given the deep-seeded animosity that still lives in France over the actions of Vichy officials, including sending French citizens of Jewish heritage to their deaths, I don’t think this line of reasoning on Arendt’s part is ill-conceived. It is when passions are running most hot that cool thinkers like Arendt are needed to help us make sense of what we are experiencing. Indeed, her notion of the banality of evil has entered our cultural lexicon, leading to much soul-searching in Germany and elsewhere about the average citizen’s complicity in crimes against humanity.
This film is aided enormously by the performance of Barbara Sukowa as Arendt. Von Trotta and Katz should have trusted her to humanize this courageous thinker and jettisoned all the feints of her intimates to defend her. Sukowa is as intelligent an actress as her character was a theorist, and you can actually see the wheels of thought turning as she watches a closed-circuit feed of Eichmann’s trial from the press room where she spent most of her time. She cows those less gifted than she merely with her presence, and argues with dispassionate passion the ideas she supports. Her final defense of her views on Eichmann and the Jewish Councils given in a class lecture near the end of the film is brilliantly delivered. Jonas, who attends the lecture, is not convinced and cuts Arendt out of his life, an action that seems completely irrational from this distance in time, when her ideas are now orthodoxy. I wish von Trotta and Katz had done more to develop the counter-arguments so that we could understand the reaction to her assertions; despite a jab at German Jews, whose secularization and assimilation brought their feelings of superiority over other Jews out in spades, not enough of this internecine battle is made clear.
Another stroke of brilliance was using the actual footage of Eichmann from the trial. It puts us in the position of trying to judge whether Arendt saw him correctly as a mediocrity who was only following orders or as a brilliant actor who fooled her into believing he was merely a mindless bureaucrat. Presenting us with the evidence itself, and not an actor’s interpretation, offers us a chance to think for ourselves, a very appropriate exercise for a film about thought. It’s hard to read into the hearts of others, particularly those who have everything to lose by exposing their true thoughts and feelings, but one remark Eichmann made convinces me that Arendt was right:
Q. In your police interrogation you said that if the Reichsfuehrer had told you that your father was a traitor, you would have shot him with your own hands. Is that true?
A. If he was a traitor, probably.
Q. No, if the Reichsfuehrer had told you, would you have shot him – your own father?
A. I would then assume that he would have had to prove it to me. If he had proved it, I would have been duty bound, according to my oath of loyalty.
Q. Was it proved to you that the Jews had to be exterminated?
A. I didn’t exterminate them.
Q. Did you never feel a conflict between your duty and your conscience?
A. One could call it a state of being split. A conscious split state where one could flee from one side to the other.
Q. One’s personal conscience was to be abandoned?
A. You could say that.
Q. If there had been more civil courage, things could have been different?
A. If civil courage had been hierarchically organized, then yes, absolutely.
According to this excerpt, the idea of acting on one’s personal conscience independent of the prevailing social structures does not exist in Eichmann’s universe. This reverence for hierarchy isn’t some trick on Eichmann’s part, but an integral part of societies around the world. Therefore, Eichmann’s guilt, his obedience to the chain of command, is a common and very dangerous flaw.
Hannah Arendt is a flawed film that tries to obey the laws of box office that demand familiarity of story structure and a sympathetic central character. Yet, it was the characteristics that made Arendt not dissimilar to her fellow Germans that also made her the perfect witness to the implications of Eichmann’s trial. The final words of Eichmann in Jerusalem sum up her passionate dispassion:
Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.