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: Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Eyes, Stones–Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award–is an extraordinary feat of poetry and clear-mindedness.  Each of these 40 small poems are dense explosions of beauty and clarity, encased in language that is both modern and antique, beautiful and brutal–much like the countries that she writes about.

In her poetry, Bell attempts to look and understand the worlds that are Palestine and Israel. She moves from biblical stories to modern events and much in between. Her topics range from the ancient relationship of Abraham and God, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Hagar to the modern Holocaust, the Zionist movement, the 1968 Egypt-Israeli War, and the most recent Intifada.

But what is remarkable about these poems is that they don’t stink of politics, of nationalism, of self-righteousness.  They are simple poems that lay bare the simplicity of man’s pain, the artlessness of his troubles, the wonder of his existence. Often, in these poems one is unsure which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Bell sits, her treatment is so even-handed.

Take for instance her poem “Naming the Day,” which is a composite both of those Jewish villages in Eastern Europe destroyed or made “Jew free” AND those Palestinian villages destroyed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” the speaker admires the Palestinian woman Amal:

Amal laughs with all her teeth and her feet
tickle the soil when she walks. She moves
through her land like an animal. She knows it
in the dark. She feeds stalks to the newborn
colt and collects its droppings like coins
to fertilize the field. Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it.

Amal’s rough existence she compares with her own existence in the settlement that surrounds Amal’s land:

All around her land the settlements sprout like weeds.
They block out the sun and suck precious water
through taps and pipes while Amal digs wells
to collect the rain. I am writing this poem
though I have never drunk rain
collected from a well dug by my own hands,
never pulled a colt through
the narrow opening covered in birth fluid
and watched its mother lick it clean,
or eaten a meal made entirely of things
I got down on my knees to plant.

Yet Bell’s work does not rise from the guilt of the occupier.  It comes from a genuine love of the people–both Arab and Israeli–and a horror of the world that has evolved around them.  A particularly poignant poem, “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love,”  laments what could be between the two:


The next time I saw her, a rifle
strapped her shoulder. The tip
of it fingered my ribs, my hips
the inside of my thighs.
Cold metal instead of her hands,
her eyes.

Elana Bell herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and as such, her examination of Jewish and Arab relationships is strikingly honest. She maintains an embracing love of the land through its many incarnations: biblical landscape and Zionist dream, modern nation and occupied territory.

In the end of the collection, she returns to Brooklyn where she lives. There she will “watch the Super Bowl…eat organic greens and make love on Saturday afternoon…[She will] listen to jazz in tight-packed clubs…and sleep on clean cotton sheets.” It is during this sleep, however, that the Mid-East comes to haunt her, to remove her from her comfort, and to tie her to the lands of her heritage.

Eyes, Stones won the 2011 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.  Five of her poems (along with her bio) are published on the Academy’s website. Check it out. She is a remarkable woman and a fine poet.