"Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think."
Barbara Sukowa in “Hannah Arendt,” a film that follows the German-American philosophy professor as she covered Adolph Eichmann’s war-crimes trial in Jerusalem.
"Hannah Arendt Biopic Offers Rare Onscreen View of Political Philosophy"
Movie Paints Vivid Picture of German-Jewish Émigrés
May 26th, 2013
The Jewish Daily Forward
Biopics about philosophers are rare, and they favor activists over ivory-tower thinkers. The life of the mind, unless it directly shapes social action, is not easily captured in film.
Hence, Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” exposed the Indian independence leader’s ideas on nonviolent struggle through his political activism, not through his writings. Likewise, Margarethe von Trotta’s cinematic portrayal of the Marxist dissident writer Rosa Luxemburg wasted little time on the latter’s considerable written output and instead explored Luxemburg’s role in the founding of organized social democracy in Poland, and later in the founding of the Communist Party in Germany, in opposition both to Russian Bolsheviks and German social democrats.
Given the challenge of translating philosophy into drama, it is understandable that Von Trotta’s latest film, about the German Jewish writer Hannah Arendt, has little to say about the political theorist’s extensive oeuvre on the nature of political action or her analysis of totalitarianism.
Instead, the film concentrates on a turbulent period in Arendt’s life, during which she came under severe attack for her reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. First published as a series of essays in The New Yorker, the report was later expanded into a book under the title “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
The film is an engaging portrayal of a woman who did not back down in the face of massive hostility generated by her ideas. Arendt’s counterintuitive interpretation of the behavior and motivations of Holocaust perpetrators created a chasm among New York Jewish intellectuals, many of whom, like her, were German exiles.
“Hannah Arendt” is a logical continuation of von Trotta’s earlier films about women articulating perspectives in opposition to mainstream ideology; beyond “Rosa Luxemburg,” these films include “Vision,” about the medieval mystic, composer and writer Hildegard von Bingen, and “Rosenstrasse,” about a successful protest of gentile women against the incarceration of their Jewish husbands in Berlin in 1943.
The opening scene of “Hannah Arendt” depicts the capture of Nazi criminal Eichmann on a dark and lonely road in Buenos Aires. Much later in the film, Arendt finds herself similarly confronted by Mossad agents while on a meditative walk in the woods away from the tumult that her interpretation of the trial had caused.
This odd parallel suggests that Arendt, according to her critics, was culpable of empathizing with Nazi perpetrators while condemning victims’ actions. She shocked her contemporaries by claiming that the Holocaust was the deed not of raging anti-Semitic brutes devoid of basic civilization, but of unthinking bureaucrats who had deactivated their own moral reasoning in favor of absolute obedience to the Führer.
She considered Eichmann a midlevel career opportunist of second-rate intellect who organized the deportation and slaughter of European Jews because it was his job and he wanted to do it well.
The Holocaust, Arendt argued, was not a collective decision in which Eichmann participated; Hitler alone had ordered the complete extermination of Europe’s Jews, but the order’s implementation depended on the willing participation of vast numbers of German and other functionaries across Europe who were unwilling to think from any standpoint other than the law of the land. This interpretation led Arendt to question the legal concept of culpability.
A traditional understanding of guilt, she pointed out, was inadequate for convicting Eichmann of crimes against Jews or crimes against humanity. Eichmann had knowingly engineered the deportation and slaughter of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but he had never personally murdered a single individual. Contrary to allegations by her critics, Arendt’s assessment of the shortcomings of existing legal theory was a far cry from exculpating Eichmann, whom she did consider evil and deserving of the death penalty.
But it explained her scorn for the prosecutor, who in her opinion misconstrued the nature of the crime and of Eichmann’s role in it.
Arendt’s view of genocide by unthinking managers did not deny the notion of agency; she certainly did not consider the Holocaust inevitable.
In her book, Arendt took great pains to report on the scope of resistance to and noncooperation with the deportations in various occupied countries, most notably Denmark, where, she wrote, even career Nazis “changed their minds” about “the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course” in the face of principled resistance.
But even if people had been willing to grant Arendt her idea that evil in the person of Eichmann seemed remarkably ordinary, Arendt’s insistence that Jewish community leaders had a choice in whether to cooperate with the Nazi regime and that they used the opportunity for self-aggrandizement seemed to turn notions of moral responsibility upside down.
Without Jewish help in administrative and police work… there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower,” she wrote. This issue had already been addressed extensively by the historian Raul Hilberg (“The Destruction of the European Jews,” 1961), to whom Arendt’s report was heavily indebted.
But rather than seeing cooperation as a rational response that sought to lessen the impact of unfathomable evil, Arendt alleged that the Jewish community leaders “enjoyed their new power” derived from compiling lists, acquiring money from the victims to cover transportation costs, policing the deportations and transferring Jewish assets into Nazi hands.
To Arendt, the frequently posed question at the trial — Why had there not been any rebellion? — was misguided. Instead, what called for explanation was the scale of cooperation on the part of the victims’ leaders.
“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between 4 ½ and 6 million people.”
Ultimately, Arendt explained, this aspect of the Holocaust illustrated how completely the calculus of Nazism had replaced traditional moral conscience.
The main issues in the debates stirred up by Arendt’s report remain unresolved. The “Goldhagen controversy” during the 1990s juxtaposed an intentionalist interpretation of the Holocaust to the functionalist account of genocide engineered by unthinking bureaucrats.
Daniel J. Goldhagen’s 1996 book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” claimed the Holocaust was possible because German anti-Semitism differed from its counterparts elsewhere in Europe insofar as it aimed at the complete elimination of Jews.
Whereas the latter argument is somewhat tautological, the functionalist thesis has no answer for why modernity engendered mass slaughter on an industrial scale only in Germany and why European societies under Nazi occupation varied widely in their response to the Nazis’ expulsion, deportation and murder of Jews.
The question of Jewish cooperation was taken up in a vastly more nuanced way than Arendt’s by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Instead of accusing Jewish leaders of self-aggrandizement, Bauman, author of the 1989 book “Modernity and the Holocaust,” emphasized the paradoxical nature of bureaucratically organized genocide in which victims’ cooperation seemed like a perfectly rational, yet of course self-defeating, strategy.
As a period film, “Hannah Arendt” pays little homage to the 50 years of research that have been produced since Eichmann’s death. It paints a vivid picture of the German Jewish émigré community in New York, which continued to cultivate German language and customs and made Arendt’s American friends, notably Mary McCarthy, feel oddly out of place.
The film portrays the falling-out between Arendt and her erstwhile mentor, Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, sensitively and without taking sides. It seems less even-handed in its rendering of Arendt’s interactions with her friend and New School colleague Hans Jonas. Arendt’s complex relationship with her former teacher, the philosopher and Nazi apologist Martin Heidegger, is treated only superficially and somewhat sappily.
The script, written jointly by Von Trotta and Pam Katz, a New York-based screenwriter, is smart and nimble, weaving together dialogue on the political and the personal in multiple languages. Original footage from the Eichmann trial is interspersed with the film’s account of Arendt in the court’s pressroom and in conversation with colleagues and friends in Jerusalem and New York.
Barbara Sukowa bears no physical resemblance whatsoever to Arendt, which has the effect of letting us focus on the character while leaving behind any sentimental fixation on looks. Janet McTeer gives a forceful performance as the novelist McCarthy, a close friend of Arendt’s who stood by her when most others abandoned her.
Anyone with a passing interest in 20th-century social theory will benefit from seeing this film, but no one should expect to receive from it an education in either philosophy or Holocaust history. It succeeds best as a sociology of intellectuals who were grappling with one of the fundamental cataclysms of the 20th century that they themselves had barely escaped — genocide on an industrial scale.
[Beate Sissenich is a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies and author of “Building States Without Society”....]
"The Woman Who Saw Banality in Evil"
May 24th, 2013
The New York Times
Fifty years ago, a small book called “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” by a New School philosophy professor named Hannah Arendt set off a storm like few books before or since. Among Upper West Side intellectuals it sparked, as the critic Irving Howe put it, “a civil war,” siring vicious debates and souring lifelong friendships. It also sold more than 100,000 copies and reshaped the way people have thought about the Holocaust, genocide and the puzzle of evil ever since.
“The Controversy” — as people simply called the growing dispute — is largely forgotten now, and the intense rancor it inspired might seem improbable. But a new movie about the episode, “Hannah Arendt,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, revives the debates and the era.
Its director, Margarethe von Trotta, a veteran of the New German Cinema, was skeptical when a friend suggested she make this film 10 years ago. “My first reaction was, how can I make a film about a philosopher, someone who sits and thinks?” she recalled in a phone interview from her home in Paris.
She and her American screenwriter, Pamela Katz, wrote a treatment that covered Arendt’s whole life, but it was too long and diffuse. They decided to focus instead on the Eichmann affair. “It’s better for filmmakers to have a confrontation, not just abstraction,” Ms. von Trotta said.
In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann — the last surviving Nazi higher-up, who had fled to Argentina at the end of the war — was kidnapped by Mossad agents, flown to Jerusalem and tried for crimes against humanity.
Arendt, a Jewish-German refugee and author of a celebrated tome, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” offered to cover the trial for The New Yorker. (Her book originally ran as a five-part article.)
She made two particularly provocative points. The first was that Eichmann, a senior SS officer, was not the malicious organizer of the Nazi death camps, as Israeli prosecutors charged, but rather a mediocre bureaucrat, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time,” as Arendt put it; “not a monster” but “a clown.” Hence the enduring phrase from her book’s subtitle: “the banality of evil.”
Arendt’s second point was that the “Jewish Councils” in Germany and Poland were complicit in the mass murder of their own people. They helped the Nazis round up the victims, confiscate their property and send them off on trains to their doom. Without these Jewish leaders, Arendt wrote, “there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four-and-a-half and six million people.” She added, “To a Jew, this role of the Jewish leaders” was “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of this whole dark story.”
For these ideas, Arendt was pilloried as a self-hating Jew. The Anti-Defamation League sent out letters urging rabbis to denounce her on the High Holy Days. Jewish organizations paid researchers to peruse her book for errors. Some of her closest friends didn’t speak to her for years, if ever again.
At the time, Israel was just 15 years old: tiny, weak and impoverished. The prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had ballyhooed the Eichmann trial — one of the first global media events — to build support for his fledgling state and to educate people about the Holocaust. In America, Jewish professionals, especially in academia, were just coming into their own, as blacklists and quotas withered away. And here was the great scholar Hannah Arendt downplaying their great catch and airing their dirty laundry.
Some of the attacks on Arendt — that she sympathized with Eichmann or demonized the Jewish victims more than their Nazi killers — were over the top. But some of Arendt’s views were over the top as well, not least her portrait of Eichmann. Her “banality of evil” thesis rests on the premise that Eichmann committed his deeds with no awareness of their evil, not even with virulent anti-Semitism. In fact, though, much evidence — some of it known at the time, some unearthed since — indicates that Eichmann very much knew what he was doing.
In 1957 in Argentina, a former SS officer named Willem Sassen interviewed Eichmann at length. The tapes, which were rediscovered only a few years ago, reveal Eichmann boasting that he had helped draft the letter ordering the Final Solution and that several times, he refused requests from fellow officers to free a favored Jew.
“I worked relentlessly to kindle the fire,” he says. “I was not just a recipient of orders. Had I been that, I would have been an imbecile. I was an idealist.”
David Cesarani, in his 2004 biography, “Becoming Eichmann,” unearthed a speech from as far back as 1937 in which the idealist was clearly “in the grip of a fantasy that there was a world Jewish conspiracy against Germany,” an enemy that must be destroyed.
At the time of the trial, much was made of Eichmann’s remark to a comrade toward the end of the war: “I will gladly jump into my grave in the knowledge that five million enemies of the Reich have already died like animals.” Arendt wrote that he had been merely “boasting” — which led Howe to comment, “That kind of boast was hardly the talk of a featureless cog in a bureaucratic machine.”
Amos Elon, a prominent Israeli journalist who generally defended Arendt, allowed in his introduction to her book’s paperback edition that Arendt “had a tendency to draw absolute conclusions on the basis of casual evidence.”
The casual evidence of Eichmann’s banality was his cliché-ridden testimony on the witness stand. “His inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else,” she wrote. He testified that he was just doing his job, unthinkingly, and Arendt believed him.
Even Arendt’s friends spoke of her snobbery. In this case, her snobbery toward Eichmann’s bad grammar blocked her from seeing what was obvious to everyone else, that he was lying in an attempt to save his skin.
Arendt misread Eichmann, but she did hit on something broader about how ordinary people become brutal killers. The postwar generation of young Germans took Arendt’s book as inspiration to rebel against their parents, who may not have personally killed Jews during the war but knew what was going on and did nothing.
In America, protesters invoked the “banality of evil” to rail against the outwardly decent family men who dropped bombs on North Vietnam or sat in nuclear-missile silos, ready to push the button — seeing them as the cold war’s version of Arendt’s “desk murderers.”
Ms. von Trotta has built a career making films about strong women who go their own way, at times alienating everyone around them. “Rosa Luxemburg” was about the Communist rebel who didn’t fit in with any party sect. “Vision” was about Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century nun-mystic who composed music that transcended all ages. (Both figures, as is Arendt, were played by Barbara Sukowa, who in the new film really seems to be a philosopher locked in deep thought.)
“I identify with these women,” Ms. von Trotta said. “Maybe it’s because I grew up stateless.”
(Her mother came from an aristocratic Russian family, fled after the revolution and settled in Berlin, where Margarethe was born — though, under German law, that didn’t make her a citizen).
“There’s a bit of this in Hannah,” she went on. “She left Germany when the Nazis took over. She was imprisoned in France for being German. She didn’t feel she had a home until she came to America. Then the attacks on the Eichmann book felt like a third exile.
“I’m not a missionary,” she added. “I don’t make films to have a message. I make films about people that I like or that interest me. But if there’s a message in this film, it’s that you should think for yourself, don’t follow an ideology or a fashion. Hannah called this ‘thinking without banisters.’ ”
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt [Wikipedia]
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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