Film review: Hannah Arendt
|21 April, 2014||Filled under Opinions, Reviews||
Reviewed by Denis Joe
It was great to see another movie from Margarethe von Trotta (The first film I saw of hers being The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum the other a biopic of the great German revolutionary, Rosa Luxemberg).
Her latest film is not a biopic, as such, but centres on one of the great controversies the 20th century (i), which still continues into the 21st century. Arendt went to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. The publication of a series of articles in The New Yorker in 1963 and the subsequent publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, caused one of the greatest controversies of the 20th century. She lost many friends, especially Jewish friends (she, herself had been a Jewish refugee from Germany).
It is this episode of this extraordinary woman’s life that Margarethe von Trotta has chosen for the subject of this film. In doing so von Trotta has made one of the most important films I have seen; combining technical brilliance, in its use of convention, with an uncanny ability to bring to the screen a film that is accessible yet conveying a subject that is both emotionally and intellectually difficult.
Whilst the film does not raise every issue that Arendt wrote about it does deal with the two that were the most controversial: ‘The Banality Of Evil’ and the cooperation of Jewish Councils with the Nazi’s Final Solution. Today we are more familiar with the former, but it is the fact that she brought up this most inconvenient truth that created such outrage at the time.
For Arendt, as for many Jews, Eichmann’s role in The Final Solution was as great as any of the leaders of the Nazis and the use of actual footage of the trial helps us in understanding the shock that Arendt must have had when she actually saw and heard the testimony of Eichmann.
The film opens with the (illegal) kidnapping of Eichmann from Argentina, by Israeli state services. The whole scene lasts only a few minutes and the hysteria, that one would normally experience in such scenes, is kept to a bare minimum, suggesting that von Trotta does not see it as particularly important in the greater picture.
When we are introduced to Arendt she is engaged in small talk with her close friend, the writer Mary McCarthy (played regally by Janet McTeer). It is a great setting for the film as what we have before us are two society women discussing scandals and the like. This contrasts with the following scene where Arendt reads of Eichmann’s capture. Arendt knew that his trial would be the first major test for the young Israeli nation. For Arendt saw the trial as being
“hostis humani generis . . .[not] against humaness; but, rather against humanity . . . The crucial point is that although the crime at issue was commited primarily against the Jews, it is in no way limited to the Jews or the Jewish question” (ii)
I think that this is quite an important point that goes beyond the humanist idea of the Brotherhood of Man. Arendt recognised that Israel could not approach this historically defining moment from a position of weakness; it could not appear to the world as a victim seeking revenge. The trial would confer legitimacy on Israel as a nation and not as an asylum for the persecuted.
The scenes that follow, show debates over drinks and the ferocity of those debates is captured well. It brought to mind scenes from some of Ken Loach’s films, such as Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley which also feature long discussions over political issues. Although Loach is known as a ‘Realist’ his portrayals always seemed staged, where as von Trotta has managed to make the disputes very natural. Loach tended towards showing an exchange of slogans; von Trotta’s approach is clearly an exchange of ideas. In doing so we are given an insight into the value of debate. The exchange of ideas can, sometimes, appear to be a sport: a game to see who can outsmart others, but they can also have enormous consequences, as this film demonstrates. The importance that von Trotta places on debate brought to mind Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece, 12 Angry Men. Yes, there is the passion that arises from arguing and defending one’s opinion and belief in pursuit of the truth, but also it shows the importance of thinking. It is this, as the film makes clear, that is central to the whole thesis of ‘The Banality Of Evil’.
Von Trotta also manages to to balance the lighter scenes well and this allows for some rather comic scenes (Arendt writing to The New Yorker to solicit their support for her to cover Eichmann’s trial, is rather like someone applying for their first job) as well as moments of real tenderness between her and her husband, the poet and philosopher, Heinrich Blücher (played by Axel Milberg).
The New Yorker had agreed to fund Arendt’s trip to Israel, to cover the trial, in exchange for reports that were serialised by the magazine. When the trial eventually took place, after a few postponements, Arendt flew out to Israel. She wrote of the charges made against Eichmann in a very formal manner, that, to me, takes away any trace of humanity from him:
“Otto Adolf, son of Karl Adolf Eichmann and Maria née Schefferling, caught in a suburb of Buenos Aires on the evening of May 11, 1960, flown to Israel nine days later, brought to trial in the District Court in Jerusalem on April 11, 1961, stood accused on fifteen counts: “together with others” he had committed crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime and especially during the period of the Second World War. The Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law of 1950, under which he was tried, provides that “a person who has committed one of these . . . offences . . . is liable to the death penalty.” To each count Eichmann pleaded: “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” (iii)
And this is where we see the value of using footage from the actual trial rather than have a re-enactment of it. We see Eichmann (in a glass cage; to contain or protect him?) and it is not a ravaging monster but a rather weedy, nondescript man who, from the outset, accepts the authority of the court. A man who is devoid of any character or emotion. He just is.
It is this that is the most shocking thing about the trial: the ordinariness of someone responsible for the deaths of millions.
It is this ordinariness that led Arendt to believe that Eichmann was telling the truth when he said that he was only doing his duty; the fact that, when asked if he would kill his own father, if it was shown that he was a traitor, led Eichmann to insist on provisos. And this is not Eichmann dodging the issue, it shows the vacuity of a mind that is incapable of independent thought and relies on adherence to the rules in order to survive. Arendt noted that before the trial at least six Israeli psychologists had examined Eichmann and found no trace of mental illness or any evidence of abnormal personality.
Arendt had already wrote about bureaucracy, particularly in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. But what she – and the rest of the world – were faced with was a real, live example of a bureaucrat. The Nazis exemplified bureaucracy in the extreme and the effect of that was to dehumanise the individual.
There is a great scene which takes place on an outside café. Arendt is talking about the trial with someone when they are interrupted by another diner who talks about his father who had been a barber. He tells how his father would quote from Faust as he was doing his work. Arendt responds by saying: “Eichmann is no Mephistopheles”. For Arendt evil was not simply the product of greed or lust for power, as was commonly held, but an outcome of not thinking or the inability to think. Eichmann did not oversee the deaths of millions because he hated Jews (iv), but because it was expected. The stultifying effect of adhering to the rules meant that Eichmann had no need to think.
The major controversy, however, was the references to the role of the Jewish Councils who aided the Nazis in drawing up lists of ‘deportees’. There is one clip in the trial footage where a Jewish Council member is giving testimony and an Israeli denounces him from the floor. It is quite a disturbing scene as it shows real, naked fury. The actions of the Jewish Councils (by no means all of them) was hardly a secret. Yet Arendt faced an enormous backlash. She was accused of being an apologist for Eichmann and blaming the victims. At one point she feared that her US citizenship would be revoked. She was visited by the Israeli Secret Service who requested that she remove the passages of her book that allude to the Jewish Council’s collaboration. In the film she is told that it indecent of her to write what she did and that the book would never be published in Israel (the first Hebrew edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem was published in 2007) to which she retorts: “You ban books and lecture me about ‘decency’.”
Towards the end of the film, Arendt is told that she must resign from the university where she was a professor. She refuses and tell the University board that she had been invited by her students to give a lecture. The lecture she delivers is a powerful one, explaining her reasons for her reports on the Eichmann trial (v).
The film also touches on an aspect of Arendt’s personal life, her relationship with the Philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, ten days after being elected Rector of the University of Freiburg. Although he resigned the rectorship a year later he maintained his membership of the Nazi party up to its disbandment in 1945.
This was a terrible blow to his friends and especially to Arendt as she had been his lover in her early years as well as a student under Heidegger. In the film she meets with the aged philosopher and he excuses his past by asking “What do I know of politics?” – to me it is an unconvincing excuse. Arendt did, however, continue to champion his work. Many writers and commentators spoke of his anti-Semitism (and still do) yet Arendt knew him well enough to refute such talk. Whilst Heidegger’s membership of the Nazi party may be unforgivable (he never apologised publicly, but in one correspondence referred to it as “the greatest stupidity of my life”) was that reason enough to reject his work?
For me, Hannah Arendt is a great film. Barbara Sukowa is outstanding in the role as the chain smoking Arendt and if there was any justice in the world she would be given an Oscar. The role must have been particularly difficult as von Trotta gives us so many different sides of Arendt’s personality: coolness, tenderness, as well as humour. Sukowa carries them off convincingly.
Ultimately, the film is not about Hannah Arendt. It is important to recognise that what concerned Arendt most, and runs through much of her writing, is the issue of responsibility, especially personal responsibility. Von Trotta makes that the central theme of the film. Whether it is questioning the motives of Eichmann or the Jewish Councils or even Arendt herself, the question of personal responsibility runs throughout the film. But von Trotta does not batter the audience in delivering that message, the film is, on a technical level, quite conventional, allowing the cast to do their work and the audience to appreciate the story.
ii. Arendt to Karl Jaspers. February 5 1961 (Letter 277) – Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926 – 1969 (1992), HBJ Inc, p. 423.
iii. A Report On The Banality Of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem (1977) Penguin Books, p. 21 It is worth noting that in the ‘Great Ideas’ series Penguin have issued Eichmann and the Holocaust, which lifts sections of Eichmann in Jerusalem, looking only at the Banality of Evil. I found it most unsatisfactory as it misses out much of what Arendt had to say and how her thesis came about and would recommend paying the extra couple of pounds for the full report.
iv. One of the points that Eichmann made was that he had Jewish friends and that he was shocked to find that German Jewish professionals were among those being sent to the camps. In a rather sick irony the same thinking was voiced by Richard Dimbleby when he reported from the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945.