Movie Review: Hannah Arendt dir. by Margarethe von Trotta

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

The philosopher, political theorist and writer, Hannah Arendt has received a thoughtful and deserving biopic from director Margarethe von Trotta, in her eponymous film, Hannah Arendt. The film’s intelligence reflects the life of the mind that Arendt lived–and an honest and hard intelligence at that.  Concentrating on the period when Arendt covered the Adolph Eichmann trials for New Yorker magazine–and the fury that it unleashed– it shows Arendt resolute in her thinking, uncolored by prejudice or sympathies.

Her coverage of the Eichmann trial ended with these words, this pronouncement:

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.

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Arendt’s biography is well know.  Born into a secular Jewish family, she studied under Martin Heidegger with whom she reportedly had a long affair.  Her dissertation was on Love and Saint Augustine, but after its completion she was forbidden to teach in German universities because of being Jewish. She left Germany for France, but while there she was sent to the Grus detention camp, from which she escaped after only a few weeks. In 1941, Arendt, her husband Heinrich Blücher, and her mother escaped to the United States.

From there she embarked on an academic career that saw her teaching at many of the U.S.’s most prestigious universities (she was the first female lecturer at Princeton University) and publishing some of the most influential works on political theory of the time.

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Hannah-ArendtBut the film, concerns a small time period in her life–but one for which many people still hold a grudge.  The film begins darkly with the Mosada snatching Eichmann off a dark road in Argentina. Back in New York City, Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) and the American novelist, Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) are sipping wine and gossipping about the infidelities of McCarthy’s suitors.  Even genius can be mundane–perhaps a subtle reference to Arendt’s conclusions from the trial.  When news of Eichmann’s arrest–and trial in Israel–is announced, Arendt writes to William Shawn (Nicholas Woodeson) at the New Yorker, asking if she might cover the trial for the magazine. Shawn is excited; his assistant, Francis Wells (Megan Gay,) less so.

Of course, the trial–and Arendt’s commission to follow it–is fascinating and controversial and we listen in on Arendt and her husband and their circle of friends as they debate and argue and opine. Aside from Mary McCarthy and the head of the German department at the New School where Arendt is teaching, the guests at Arendt’s apartment are all friends from Europe, German-Jews who have escaped the Shoah/Holocaust. Listening to their different conversations is fascinating and electrifying.  This is a movie about “thinking.”

Conversing in Arendt's apartment.

Conversing in Arendt’s apartment.

In Israel, Arendt meets with old friends, friends who remember her argumentative spirit, and stays with the Zionist, Kurt Blumenfeld. From the outset, one sees that Arendt is not thinking along the same lines as the masses following the trial.

“Under conditions of tyranny it is much easier to act than to think.”

Hannah Arendt

At the trial, there is a telling moment, when Arendt watches Eichmann in his glass cage sniffling, rubbing his nose and dealing with a cold. It is then, a least in the film, that she comes to understand that this monster is not a MONSTER. She sees him as simply a mediocre human being who did not think. It is from here that she coins the idea of the “banality of evil.”

Upon returning home–with files and files of the trial’s transcripts–her article for the New Yorker is slow in coming. Her husband has a stroke, and the enormity of what she has to say needs to be perfect.

When it is finally published, the angry reaction is more than great. The critic Irving Howe called it a “civil war” among New York intellectuals. (Just last week, the word “shitstorm” was added to the German dictionary, the Duden, partly due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the word to describe the public outcry she faced over the Eurozone’s finacial crisis. It is an apt term for what occurred upon publication of Arendt’s coverage.)

It is this extraordinary anger towards Arendt–and her staunch defense–that makes up the final moments of the film. In the closing moments, Arendt speaks to a packed auditorium of students (and a few administrators). She has just been asked to resign, which she refuses to do.  These are her closing words:

“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. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

This is, more than anything else, a film about thinking.

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The extraordinary anger shown in the film is still felt by many today and, in fact, seems to have colored some of the reviews that I have read and heard. Some of these reviewers seem to be reviewing the life and work of Arendt and not the film of Margarethe von Trotta, for von Trotta’s film is a unique, masterpiece. It is more than a biography of a controversial thinker…it is a portrait of thought itself.  Arendt attempts to define “evil”–certainly an apt exercise at the time. She defines it–to her friends, to her classes, to her colleagues, and to herself–and finds that it is not “radical” as she once had posited. It is merely ordinary.  Goodness, she sees, is what has grandeur.

The film, Hannah Arendt, is well worth seeking out. It is thoughtful, provoking, controversial, and, at times, even funny.  You can’t ask for much more for the price of a movie ticket.  As always, here’s a trailer:


Book Review: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Cover of Bernhard Schlink’s book.

A scene from Stephen Daldry’s film, The Reader

The old question of the book and the movie: Can a film ever do a novel justice?  Or should we look at them as entirely separate works of art and not make the comparison at all?  Just the parameters of a roughly  two hour viewing experience seriously limits what a film maker can do with his source, a source that usually comprises a multi-hour/multi-day experience for a reader.

Certainly there are films that are more successful than others in capturing the essence of a novel. And just as certain there are real travesties. But the successes are such because they capture the spirit of the novel rather than getting lost in trying to relate every detail.  I am thinking of Mike Nichols Catch-22 based on the Joseph Heller novel.  The film works because it perfectly captures the inanity of bureaucracy, the numbness of war, and the black humor of Heller.  It is a large novel, non-linear in its arc, and Nichols captures its essence without getting bogged down in trying to capture every character and sub-plot.

I saw the film The Reader when it was released in 2008 and only got to reading the book in 2012. (I had two friends who refused to see the film because they had loved the novel so much.)  Regardless, it was a compelling film with a maddening and dramatic twist.  A young school boy (Michael) has an affair with a older woman who insists that he reads to her every time before they have sex.  He reads her all the classics–The Odyssey, War and Peace, etc. But she seems oddly aloof, and at the end we realize why. The boy, on the other hand, grows into an unfeeling man, and his coldness and inaction when needed is what is infuriating.

The novel–by its very nature–is quite different. First, it is much more internal, narrated by the boy who often questions and analyzes his own thoughts and his own actions. There are ruminations on the ethical choices made by ordinary citizens during the Holocaust, on the responses of the following generations on the actions of their own mothers and fathers. (These scenes take place in 1966, two decades after the war.) And yet while the narrator weighs, dissects, conjectures about these ethics, his own actions–many years after the war–must also be examined.  His coldness, his lack of human kindness, his decision not to act is all quite similar to that which he condemns in the female guards who are on trial in the second half of the novel.

When Hannah (the older woman) confesses to a crime she did not commit rather than reveal a secret she is much more ashamed of, she is given life imprisonment. Michael has information that could acquit her that he does not reveal.

To me, the ending is insignificant, despite the attempt to redeem Michael. Yes, he does reach out to Hannah, he does realize his own hardness, and he does try to do right.  But it is all too late. I had grown to dislike him so much by then that his redemption was all but impossible for me.

Most of the details of the plot remained the same from  book to  film but the internal voice was missing–or at least adulterated. The novel also starts out quite erotic which simply cannot be captured adequately on film with the same impact–words seem always more intimate and immediate than soft-lit actors and actresses.

The old question of book and movie?  In the case of The Reader, both.  They are two different things, two very good experiences, two separate ways of engaging a reader/viewer.

Dragonflies, wives’ tales, and worse

I bought some wallpaper the other day. Just four yards of it.  It has enormous dragonflies on it–each one is 2 feet across, a pen and ink drawing done in exquisite detail.

Don’t ask me why.

When I was young I was told that dragonflies sewed your mouth shut.  I can clearly remember knowing that and believing it as a child. Yet when I ask other people, no one else had ever heard of such a thing.  Is it a ethnic thing that came from my parents? Was it just an off-the-cuff remark that some joking adult told me and which I always believed?  I don’t know.

I mentioned it to a woman I worked with once. She had never heard of their sewing mouths shut, but she told me a much, more horrific tale about her and dragonflies.

She was a little girl around seven or eight and there was a copse of trees behind the house where she lived, ringed by a swatch of tall, wild grass.

One day when she was playing in or walking through the high grasses, three slightly older boys molested her.  They dragged her to a clearing in the woods and the weapon they used was a dragonfly.  They pinned down her arms and legs and waved the dragonfly in front of her face while they groped her and de-pants her. For her, a dragonfly meant much more than a silly wives’ tale about sewing children’s mouth shut.

What more can one say?

And where are those boys? What have they become? Do the remember that hell they visited on that little girl?

I have outgrown my fear of dragonflies–in fact, now I find them beautiful and graceful.  But I am sure that that young girl, now a woman in her 60s, never has.

Ethical versus Moral

I had a conversation the other day with a woman who is teaching Marjane Satrapi’s  graphic-novel Persepolis. Our discussion revolved around the differences between ethics and morality. Neither of us are professional philosophers, but I like to think that we are thoughtful, intelligent people. And so, we must answer the questions: What is ethical? What is moral?

From the dictionaries I learned that morals are “a person’s standards of behavior or belief’s concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do” and that ethics are “moral principles that govern person’s or group’s behavior.”

Yet that seems backwards to the way that I have always viewed it. I had viewed morals as being proscribed by a particular group and ethics as being a more personal, individual code of living.  Perhaps my association of “groups” with morals  is coming from the preponderance of fundamentalists–in all religions–who attempt to press their moral code on all. Ethics to me, on the other hand, is the system of right and wrong, just and unjust, developed individually.

Is this a case where I am just wrong, outright?

So, I went to a man who teaches philosophy. His distinction was this: ethics is a system of right and wrong behavior derived from rationality. Morals is a system derived from religious belief.  Yes, many times they overlap. But sometimes they do not.

Yup, that seemed to clear some things up.  And I didn’t seem completely off in my understanding.

For instance, according to the religious belief group in charge in the picture above, it is IMMORAL to listen to ABBA. (We are talking ethics and morals here, not musical discernment.) Yet it is hardly UNETHICAL to do so.

So think of the things that are proscribed by particular groups and weigh them in light of ethical or moral. For some, it is marrying outside one’s group (unethical or immoral?); for others, it is believing in evolution (unethical or immoral?); and still for others, it is having men and women sit on the same side of a room (unethical or immoral?).

In the States, we are going through an election season (doesn’t it always seem like an election season) and, in the political debate, social issues always seem to force their way to the top–or at least garner the most attention. Issues of sexuality, women’s reproductive rights, marriage get a lot of discussion.  Are these ethical issues or moral issues?  In a system that supposedly separates church from state, are the morals of a particular belief system muddying the ethics of a rational system?  In other words, I might not want to listen to ABBA but should you tell me I can’t?

I listened to a man speak two weekends ago who suggested that members of the U.S. Congress should read more poetry. He noted that the poet Adrienne Rich once called poetry, in all its ambiguity,  the “perfect antidote to moral certainty.” I keep thinking about that and worrying about governmental moral certainty.  Other governments have tried it–and it ain’t pretty.

It’s been a while since I read Persepolis or Persepolis 2, and I have never seen the film version. I remember both books as being quick reads, but I have lasting memories of them. Maybe, I’ll go through them again this weekend.