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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But 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.
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.”
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: