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The Controversy Revisited: A Response to von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt

by Robert Boyers


At the New York premiere of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt in late May, it was impossible not to wonder what a large contemporary audience would make of a film built around a thinker. Of course von Trotta had already given us a wide range of films focused on powerful women, from Rosa Luxembourg to the more recent Vision, whose central character is the medieval nun Hildegarde von Bingen. Von Trotta had always managed in these earlier films to temper admiration with skepticism, to suggest that unyielding conviction may betray an element of fanaticism, that there is always a price to be paid for steadfastness and independence of mind. Clearly von Trotta wanted to study and, if possible, celebrate women who were, in one degree or another, at odds with their society or otherwise pitted against the established ideas or decorums imposed upon them. But Arendt was an especially problematic figure for such a filmmaker to tackle, a figure who was revered and reviled in almost equal measure, and whose work would be notoriously difficult to summarize or to bring to life in a two-hour film.

Von Trotta and her collaborator, the screenwriter Pamela Katz, had planned to range broadly over the life of Arendt, but decided in the end to focus on four critical years in her life, when she went to Israel to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker in 1961 and later published her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt had come to the United States from her native Germany, where she had been a student (and lover) of Martin Heidegger, and she made her name as the author of several major works, including The Origins of Totalitarianism. Though she was by no means a journalist or a writer of occasional prose, she seemed in several respects the right person to cover the Eichmann trial. She had written brilliantly about the period of the Second World War and had also written in compelling ways about evil, and was thus poised to consider Eichmann as a particular incarnation of a phenomenon often invoked but rarely understood. Given her credentials, no one could have imagined that her work on Eichmann would expose her to the kinds of attack and condemnation that soon made her a notorious figure, and it is in fact the controversy that is central to von Trotta’s film.

The controversy erupted in a wide range of newspapers and magazines. It pitted against one another people who had long admired Arendt and, in some cases, thought themselves her friends. The virulence of some of the exchanges may be studied in back issues of Partisan Review, where the New York intellectual community had long debated political and cultural issues, and where many of Arendt’s friends on both sides of the Eichmann controversy weighed in. Though some of Arendt’s critics disputed her facts and her marshaling of evidence, most of the critical attention was focused on two highly contentious issues: one of them—on the nature of evil—is central to the argument of the book, the other—on the role of the Jewish leaders and Jewish councils in facilitating the extermination of the Jews—is by no means incidental but so highly charged that even now it is hard for many people to talk about it at all.

Arendt had subtitled her book “A Report on the Banality of Evil,” intending to challenge the standard notion of evil as “demonic” or “satanic” and thus repudiating its theological or metaphysical associations with sin. Eichmann, she argued, had committed “monstrous” deeds but was himself “quite ordinary” and in fact betrayed neither “firm ideological convictions” nor “specific evil motives.” She saw in him “not stupidity but thoughtlessness,” and noted the clichés and “standardized codes of expression” which together revealed an “absence of thinking” so appalling as to force her to reconsider many long-held convictions.

Von Trotta allows the Arendt character in the film—played by Barbara Sukowa—to work through the impressions that led her to formulate her theory of evil, and at one point late in the film she has Arendt deliver a seven-minute speech setting out the relevant philosophic and human implications. This is one of the most moving scenes in a film that contains a great deal of emotion, and it is not easy to sit through the scene without feeling the burning passion that informs Arendt’s thinking and to feel some considerable inclination to agree with her. And yet elsewhere in the film a variety of characters are permitted to express their horror at Arendt’s view of Eichmann and to suggest that she has been taken in by what was clearly the sort of performance at which he and other members of the Nazi leadership had become so adept.

Does von Trotta invite her viewer to support Arendt’s view of Eichmann? The most reliable evidence available within the framework of the film is the black and white footage drawn from the actual trial of Eichmann, footage von Trotta interpolates into her narrative with extraordinary tact and cunning. There we see Eichmann fidgeting and sniffling, resorting to bureaucratic jargon and depicting himself as a little man sworn to do his duty, by no means responsible for the decisions made by his superiors. And yet there is nothing remotely sympathetic in his performance. Nothing that would make him seem a man sinned against more than sinning. Nothing credible in his protestations of innocence or good intentions. So that, whether or not we are inclined to support Arendt’s view of Eichmann, we understand entirely that such a man was by no means innocent, that he was, quite as Arendt found him in her book, guilty, his guilt understood in Arendt’s terms as a function of his determined and unforgivable thoughtlessness.

Still, many readers of Arendt’s book, and several characters in von Trotta’s film, conclude that Arendt’s intention was to exonerate Eichmann. After all, if he knew not what he was doing and simply followed orders, or supposed that he had no alternative but to do what he was told, how might he be found responsible and therefore condemned for “crimes against humanity”? This logic was central to the case against the Eichmann book fifty years ago, and it was loudly sounded again on the sidewalk outside New York’s Film Forum after the screening of von Trotta’s film, where the director herself was furiously condemned for promoting Eichmann’s innocence. What was an utterly bizarre misreading of the original Eichmann book will surely be, in some quarters, the basis of a comparably bizarre and willful misreading of the new film.

An aspect of this misreading has to do with the conflation of the “banality of evil” thesis with Arendt’s provocative suggestion that, had Jewish leaders refused to cooperate with the Nazis, fewer Jews would have perished. Arendt had devoted relatively little of her book to this matter, and von Trotta likewise devotes to it only modest attention. Some readers of the book were thus moved to feel that Arendt had failed to appreciate the dreadful conditions under which Jewish leaders made their choices. Many accused her of blaming the victims, while others argued that she exhibited a callous disregard for what were after all her own people, and that in effect she had suggested that Eichmann was no more guilty than the Jews who had hoped to buy some time for themselves and others by agreeing to provide to their murderers lists of names and addresses in exchange for small promises and favors.

No character in von Trotta’s film is moved to credit what Arendt had written about the Jewish leaders. In fact, though she insists that she is right and that the facts warrant the conclusions she has drawn, several substantial and attractive figures in her circle of friends and admirers recoil from what she has said and cite both her arrogance and her ignorance. Just so, though her theory about the banality of evil had seemed to many people original and in some ways irresistible, a number of the intellectuals and intimates depicted in the film are by no means convinced or impressed. Though there is nothing in Arendt’s book or in the film to warrant the idiotic assertions that Arendt was a self-hating Jew or that she had failed to grasp the enormity of Eichmann’s crimes, there is also nothing in the film to indicate that von Trotta’s goal was to uphold without doubt the philosopher’s view of things. Recent scholarship on the attitudes and activities of “ordinary Germans” in the Nazi period—by Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen, among many others—largely supports Arendt’s Eichmann thesis, but von Trotta clearly did not conceive of her film as a polemic or a defense. Of course the intentions of a filmmaker are often notoriously difficult to uncover. Von Trotta does not, after all, announce in so many words what she is after. That she admires Hannah Arendt is unmistakable, and Barbara Sukowa makes the character at once vulnerable and commanding, imperious and loving, reflective and combative. Like other von Trotta characters played by Sukowa over many years, she can seem at selected moments almost unbearably intense and sure of herself and yet always human, all too human. In working out our feelings about the character as the film unfolds we are moved by the loyalty she inspires in others who are made to seem admirable, from her closest friend, the writer Mary McCarthy, to the philosopher Hans Jonas and the young woman who served as her assistant. But Jonas broke with her over the Eichmann book, and a number of others who had adored her were likewise repelled. Any temptation we may have, as viewers moved to find Hannah purely brave and bold and fiercely independent, is at least somewhat undercut or complicated by our sense that, in sticking to her guns, she refuses to acknowledge what should trouble her more than it does. Though she is deeply upset by the attacks she endures, she seems never to waver in her certainty that she is right and that those who doubt her are craven or stupid or mysteriously and tragically deluded. Von Trotta allows her to seem a daring thinker we can honor and cherish, but she is by no means always exemplary.

Von Trotta knew, of course, that Arendt would seem to many viewers haughty and intimidating, and she therefore takes pains to depict her as a fond though never doting wife and a passionately devoted friend. In the opening scene of the film she and Mary McCarthy engage in a brisk exchange about men and marriage, and elsewhere she engages with a variety of old friends and colleagues in playful banter or earnest and sometimes soulful conversation. Sukowa plays these scenes with her characteristic restraint and intelligence, allowing Arendt to seem formidable and yet also susceptible to sweetness and fellow-feeling. Thus, when the Eichmann book appears and people begin to turn against her, we want to defend her against the charge that she is stubborn and arrogant, but von Trotta includes in her characterization marks of impatience and disdainfulness that give us pause. Especially curious are her interactions with William Shawn of The New Yorker, who commissioned her to cover the Eichmann trial and supported her through the controversy, in spite of the misgivings of others on his staff. In the film Arendt is decidedly high-handed with Shawn and at one point openly insulting, and it is clear that these brief scenes are intended to show Arendt as a person who could be unpleasant and occasionally cut off from the ordinary courtesies. Had von Trotta wanted the film to provide a hagiographic portrait of a simply heroic character, she and Pamela Katz would surely have omitted such interactions.

Also curious are the brief flashbacks to Arendt’s youth when she was Heidegger’s student. The relationship has played a significant role in creating what may be called the legend of Hannah Arendt, a legend that perhaps accounts for the fact that she and her work are more widely studied in universities around the world than the work of any other political thinker of the last hundred years. And of course the words “human interest” cannot begin to cover the fascination of an affair that brought together a brilliant young Jewish student and the German philosopher who became rector of a German university in the year Hitler took power and supported the aims of the Fuhrer throughout the war years. Von Trotta’s decision to include in the film both the flashbacks and also a tense post-war meeting between the two figures would seem to suggest, again, that she wished to portray her central character as a complex and, in some respects, unfathomable figure, a thinker who did not always make wise decisions or calculate the consequences of her actions.

In the end, the film seems to us not in any standard sense a bio-pic but a character study focused on an extraordinarily interesting figure who has long inspired contradictory emotions and assessments. Does it take liberties in drawing upon the available historical record? It does, for example, in putting in the mouth of one character the words actually spoken or written by another. Do we care, as viewers, that Hannah may not have spoken to Mr. Shawn as von Trotta indicates she did? We do not. For we take it that, in essence, von Trotta’s goal was not simply to create a credible portrait of a singular person but to reveal the difficulty entailed in living the life of the mind and in pursuing, with all one’s troubled heart, the most difficult truths. We are reminded as the film unfolds before us that we are following the trajectory of a complex, “real-life” narrative and yet also that the narrative has been scrupulously shaped by the hand of a director who has something of the greatest importance that she wishes us to contemplate. Hannah Arendt is not a film about the banality of evil or about the Nazi period, though it brings an entire historical era and its aftermath to vivid life. It is a film about the relation between temperament and thinking, and I cannot think of any other film that has made that subject so thrilling and so disturbing.

 

Robert Boyers is editor of Salmagundi and director of The New York State Summer Writers Institute. His essay on "A Beauty" appeared last year in AGNI and is reprinted in the 2012 edition of Best American Essays. (6/2013)


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