Hannah Arendt: A Review Essay
The movie was directed by Margarethe von Trotta and co-authored with Pam Katz
The movie is about love. It is about friendship. It is about the deliberate effort to connect the private and the public life that so characterizes all the films of Margarethe von Trotta. The character and role of Adolph Eichmann as interpreted by Hannah Arendt is the core of the film, but the larger issue is her concept and theory about the banality of evil. A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is her view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis. A glance in passing is also paid to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Underlying the whole biopic is Hannah Arendt`s conception of thought, not just philosophical thought, but thinking per se and the role of the intellectual. The movie commands that we reflect on the nature and role of biopics in general.
In my son Jeremy’s book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, he describes Heinrich Blücher, Hannah Arendt’s husband, at a period when he was seducing the minds of all his young followers and the bodies of his female ones in the thirties with his Marxist arguments. His conquests included Albert’s sister, Ursula. It was a habit that the movie suggests persisted when Blücher was in America married to Hannah Arendt. Another habit also persisted. Jeremy writes, “Many years later, Heinrich surfaced once more in New York as Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt; the years had passed, but the outward affection for didactic certainties had not. (my italics) In Paris, Blücher had succeeded in confirming many of Hirschmann’s (sic! – spelled in the original way) doubts about Communism; three decades later, it struck Hirschman that the air of conviction that hovered over Blücher and Arendt, and to which Americans were flocking in search of answers, had still not lifted.” (106) By then, of course, he was no longer a non-Stalinist communist or even a fellow traveller but, in fact, a staunch anti-communist supposedly critical of all essentialist thinking. But you would not know either from watching the film.
In Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa who had worked with von Trotta before and who played Lola in a Fassbinder flick and the good-hearted prostitute in Berlin Alexanderplatz, is brilliant in passionately portraying Arendt’s affection for didactic certainties held with a haughty air of intellectual conviction. Heinrich Blücher (HB), played by the tall and imposing Axel Milberg, is reduced to a turtle dove in relation to his queen, sometimes questioning at other times expanding on her judgements, decisions and ideas, but always out of concern for her well-being. While HB dotes like a love-struck devoted spouse, constantly cooing or rather “turring” in a deep vibrating sweet but mournful purr of affection, she responds with loving devotion to her dear “Stuts”. Their solid and unwavering union in a flame of love is best captured by some stanzas in William Shakespeare’s 1601 poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle”.
“Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
'Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phoenix' sight;
Either was the other's mine.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature's double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded."
The poem concludes:
"Leaving no posterity:
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer."
In their married chastity, in spite of his philandering, their children were their ideas that he, the turtle, expounded orally and at length and she, the phoenix, wrote about at equal length. HA`s PhD had been on Saint Augustine`s theory of love. Her conception and effort had been to realize perfect love in the union of persons in the Trinity in the medieval Catholic literary traditions of mystical union, spiritual friendship and spiritual marriage. For Blücher, his Phoenix provided the entire world of intellectual pleasure and Arendt`s judgements shone as “Clear as a naked Vestal, / Closed in an orb of Crystal.”
But the Phoenix side of the two–in-one pair was also a sacrificial lamb akin to Jesus as the innocent Savior persecuted and sacrificed for those who were truly guilty. Jesus says to his disciples, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Hannah Arendt is the wise serpent; Heinrich Blücher is the innocent dove. But he wears the tell-tale black and white striped patch on his neck that forever marks those who think only in simplistic dichotomous categories. While Blücher flew off to wander in the wilderness of Bard College to escape the windy storms and tempests of public issues (Psalm 55), his Phoenix flew into the eye of the storm.
But their ideas had merged. "Either was the other's mine." Margarethe Von Trotta captures that duality in unity in the film even though Alex Milberg who portrays Heinrich Blücher is tall in contrastto the squat 5' 4" barrel-chested historical figure who chain-smoked camel cigarettes and enchanted his students at great length in a heavy German accent at Bard College. While the film would lead you to believe that Hannah Arendt developed her idea of the banality of evil from observing Adolph Eichmann, it is quite apparent that she pays no attention to his pursed lips, twitches and grimaces picked up and replayed in the black and white excerpts from the film of the actual trial, but only sucks up his words as if they were truly revelations of his thinking while declaring him, though not stupid, a man incapable of thought.
In modern bureaucratic societies, human evil originates from a failure to think. Arendt accepted Eichmann’s claims that he had “never acted from base motives” and “never had any inclination to kill anybody … never hated Jews.” “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth.” He was not a villain propelled by evil but a law-abiding citizen conscientiously obeying the law and doing his duty “`with excellence recognized by his superiors.” Though his crimes were genuine and extraordinary, Eichmann was not; he was an ordinary man.
Determined to portray Eichmann as an ordinary man and neither demonic nor a monster, nicht einmal unheimlich, she came to the opposite position, that he demonstrated an authentic inability to think. He did not act out of conviction nor with pronounced intentions. He was eigentich dumm. According to Arendt, Eichmann was not a Nazi. Arendt claimed that Eichmann was totally unaware of Hitler`s program but was simply passively swept into membership in the party. He was essentially a modest man with no personal hatred for Jews. Theseextreme empirical statements, refuted both by historical evidence and even the trial proceedings, are largely omitted from the film.The abstraction of the idea of Eichmann as a man incapable of thinking is the focus of the film rather than the actual historical Eichmann.
Ironically, we do not hear any thought in process, only strongly held opinions. We see Bukova lying on her divan presumably reflecting as she smokes. We see her standing and looking inwardly as a visual representation of thinking. But unlike the film A Beautiful Mind, we actually never get a glimpse of real thinking. That is, perhaps, because Trotta buys into Hannah Arendt`s conception of thinkingas the deviant thought set off against simplifications, clichés and conventions as the only antidote to conformist non-thought of a bureaucratic society, conformity that allows us to carry out the will of higher authorities without reflection.
For Arendt, thinking and thinking alone as critical non-conformity allows us to retain and maintain human dignity and resist servility. The fact that Arendt was empirically incorrect, that those who resisted the Nazi machinations, that those who engaged in acts of sacrifice to save others, were very infrequently thinkers and most often people with a stronger institutionalized set of values that made them act otherwise and according to what they considered ordinary norms, is ignored in the film. Only the thesis that evil arises from mechanical obedience by people who fail to think critically, reflectively and against the grain is suggested, but not by our witnessing such an event, but because we are told that this is the case. And because Arendt and Blücher are presented as cases in point, though what we actually witness is a stubborn unwillingness to consider other positions and weigh them fairly. Instead strong opinion against the current is seen as the sole representation of authentic thought with no evidence that non-conformist thought is the precondition of dissident action against organized evil.
In the clearest failure of the film, the flashbacks to her love affair with Martin Heidegger (played by Klaus Pohl) and her re-union with Heidegger after the war when he never answers the question she poses to him why he became a Nazi, but instead mouths the romantic cliché that thinking is a “lonely business” and such real pretentious philosophical banalities that “we think because we are thinking beings” when, in reality, thinking is neither a lonely enterprise nor an activity exclusively reserved for humans and incumbent on humans to express their humanity. Thinking is a communal task of give and take, empirical testing and assessing consistency and coherence. Given that von Trotta buys into the Heideggerian conceit, thinking becomes identified with puffing endlessly on cigarettes and blowing smoke, with silent intensity and staring inwardly. We are not propelled into thinking with her but thrown into the illusion of thought. We are not forced to confront our own rigid beliefs but to accept hers as the only authentic ones in contrast to the dogmas and sentiments of those around her even though, ironically, her thoughts are just expressed as opinions and never as conclusions to the evidence before her or the results of arguments in which she was engaged. We only get the bottom line and the illusion of a process. Thinking is portrayed as arrogant assertion in the face of opposition. In this view, those who profess to believe in aliens visiting earth, as long as they accompany such expressions of belief with staring emptily, lying on a bed and blowing smoke, will be granted the status of great thinkers.
The conception of Eichmann as a man incapable of thought is translated into the idea of the "banality of evil". It is not clear whether the idea came from Carl Jaspers, her mentor and old friend, who for some inexplicable reason is not in the film, or whether her husband planted the idea in her head. Carl Jaspers first raised the idea of the banality of evil before Eichmann was even captured. As he wrote in a letter to her at then end of 1960, "we have to see these things (the murders by the Nazis) in their total banality (Banalitat), in their prosaic triviality, because that's what truly characterizes them." Arendt, in turn, suggested to Jaspers that her husband had characterized the type of evil perpetrated by the Nazis as a superficial phenomenon and that he had inspired her to adopt that as the sub-title of her Eichmann book. (Young-Bruehl, 1982, 330) But just as Hannah Arendt did, Margarethe Von Trotta ignores any references to the actual historical record.
Hannah Arendt had dedicated her book The Origins of Totalitarianism to her husband, often expressing the opinion that it was to him she owed a huge debt, not merely for his support but for his ideas. "The banality of evil" was a very enchanting but a terrible idea, but you would never know it from the film where the enemies who assault her, the New York intellectuals (Lionel Abel in his review in the Partisan Review and Norman Podhoretz in "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A study in the Perversity of Brilliance," 1963 in Commentary) in a presumable re-enactment of the famous meeting sponsored by the magazine Dissent at the Hotel Diplomat are turned into blithering idiots mouthing clichés. (See also Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts,” in the Fall 1963 issue of New Politics and the correspondence between Lionel Abel and Tony Judt in The New York Review of Books.) Many of her academic colleagues turn against her, not because they find the concept as empty as its literal meaning, but are portrayed as stiff-necked dogmatic rednecks that make Adolph Eichmann look like the epitome of flexibility and litheness as they simply respond to the negative vituperation of the organized Jewish community. (For an historical account and explication of that reaction, see Peter Novick (2000) The Holocaust in American Life.) Even her long term oldest friends and fellow "yekkes", Hans Jonas in New York (played with great heart and craft by Ulrich Noethen) and Kurt Blumenfeld (played with even greater sympathy by Michael Degen), finally literally turn their backs on her as she is accused of being a self-hating Jew. For the biopic, Hannah Arendt, is a portrait of betrayal, not Eichmann`s and the Nazi`s, but of the betrayal of Hannah Arendt by those intolerant of original thought in their desire to protect Jewish sensibilities. In that sense, von Trotta follows totally into the footprints of her main protagonist.
In the penultimate powerful grand finale scene where Hannah Arendt defends her interpretation with passion, vigour and intellectual acuity, the mindblinded academic colleagues walk out and even Kurt Blumenfeld insists that this time she went too far, but the rapt students in the audience applaud with mesmerized entranced looks. I watched that scene and asked how could I have been one of those students fifty years ago? If I had been there, I would certainly have applauded with even more energy than they even demonstrated. After all, in 1962, I had visited the New School with a view of possibly studying with her as a PhD student only to learn that she was not available. I did not learn until later that she was on leave working on the Eichmann book.
Why was I even more enchanted by the idea of the “banality of evil” than the idea of “radical evil” she had propounded in The Origins of Totalitarianism? In Religion within the Limits of Reason, Immanuel Kant had depicted radical evil as a “natural propensity”, based on imperatives that dictate maxims that run contrary to law. But Adolph Eichmann repeated and repeated the claim that he performed his deeds because he was obeying the law with no special animus towards the Jews whatsoever. In the last frames, we see Hannah Arendt muttering to herself that her critics were not only wrong, but failed to note her one intellectual error, the recognition that evil could not be radical but was just so ordinary and puerile. As Hannah Arendt had written to Gershon Scholem, “It is indeed my opinion that evil is never ‘radical’ that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the entire world precisely because it is spread like a fungus on the surface or, in the metaphor Blücher bequeathed to her, like a bacterium. It is ‘thought defying’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. (Young-Breul, 1982, 369) In other words, not only was Eichmann’s actions banal, not only was the execution of the Shoah by all the Nazis banal, but evil itself was banal precisely because it was characterized by Arendt as being without thought.
To grasp what she means, go see Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing which portrays the militia leaders, the politicians, the military leaders, but primarily the ‘gangsters’ (translated by them as meaning free men) who perpetrated the genocide of one million ethnic Chinese identified with the communist opposition to the Sukarno dictatorship in Indonesia. These genocidaires make a film re-enacting their acts of murder as well as their fantasies of freedom and happiness all based on borrowed Hollywood images filtered through an Indonesian sensibility. Told from the perspective of the victimizers who willingly re-enact their ruthless crusade of torture and murder, the film is unique. These mass murderers engage in rhapsodic fantasies of colour and pleasure and sensuous richness on an immense but totally amateurish scale that stand in such contrast to the black and white horror of the murders in the Lodz ghetto or their own massacres of the ethnic Chinese. Like Schindler’s List, in which Ralph Fiennes plays the Nazi war criminal, Amon Goeth, with such intensity and villainy as he cold bloodily shoots Jews from his balcony overlooking the Lodz ghetto, this is not the evil of ogres of villainy nor the banality of evil as the mechanical workings of a thoughtless bureaucracy supposedly epitomized by Eichmann, but the escape from boredom of fantasists addicted to hedonist pleasures.
The theory that evil portrayed as an absence of self-reflection and thought characterizes not only these three versions of genocidal behaviour, but all genocidal actions and even all evil acts, is obscured in the film where the common interpretation is adopted that only the mechanical and bureaucratic production of death as epitomized ostensibly by Eichmann is characterized as banal, an understandable confusion given Hannah Arendt’s own conflicting writing on the subject.
This interpretation is reinforced by Adolph Eichmann’s effort to portray himself in his trial, at least those parts of the trial that Hannah Arendt actually sat through. He was just a part of a bureaucratic system in which he followed orders. In 1963, Jacob Robinson prepared a six-page summary for his journal, Facts for B’nai Brith documenting Hannah Arendt’s errors and omissions. Later, as Deborah Lipstadt documented in The Eichmann Trial with much greater thoroughness and scholarship, Arendt missed those parts of the trial where Eichmann bared his fangs, revealed his deep-seated anti-Semitism and the tremendous initiatives he took in ensuring that Jews were dispatched to their death with as much efficiency as he could muster. Historical scholarship has established beyond a doubt that Adolph Eichmann was a vicious anti-Semite and a relentless and enthusiastic advocate of Jewish extermination who expressed the opinion in Argentina that his only regret was that he failed to kill even more Jews. But, of course, for Hannah Arendt, in the spirit of her mentor, Martin Heidegger, this is not by definition “thought”. Thought is not hypothetical and instrumental, but categorical and concerned only with itself. Thought is defined as intellectual masturbation without any need to have intercourse with the world to test its consistency and empirical grounds.
Facts! Who needs facts? Once Hannah Arendt conceived an idea, that was the fact. She might assert at one point her most controversial claim that the cooperation of the Jewish Councils with the Nazis in the bureaucratic organization of the death squads that took place with very few exceptions was the worst sin of the Holocaust or, in one extreme interpretation of the sentences from Arendt, even of Jewish history, or later that this was the action of a minority without pausing to note the contradiction, but when challenged whether by her critics or by William Shawn himself (Nicholas Woodeson) when he sat in awe of Hannah Arendt and challenged the verity of such an assertion, he was summarily put in his place for this was not an interpretation but a fact. Why? Because she asserted it!
The New Yorker bits offer the one humorous relief in the film when the editors are considering Hannah Arendt’s offer to cover the trial. William Shawn’s assistant, Francis, (Megan Gay) is unimpressed by the offer – “Philosophers don’t make deadlines,” she quips – but the young intern in the office, who turns out was Jonathan Schell, pipes up in youthful intellectual awe, “But she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism“. The movie could have used a bit more comic relief.
For Hannah Arendt, the two great evils of the modern age were racism (and its kissing cousin, nationalism) and bureaucracy. As she wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination. Without race as a substitute for the nation, the scramble for Africa and the investment fever might well have remained the purposeless ‘dance of death and trade’ (Joseph Conrad) of all gold rushes. Without bureaucracy as a substitute for government, the British possession of India might well have been left to the recklessness of the ‘breakers of law in India’ (Burke) without changing the political climate of an entire era.” Arendt went on to charge the pairing of racism with bureaucracy as responsible for the genocide of the Hottentots and Leopold II of Belgium’s responsibility for the crime against humanity in the Congo.
The “fact” that neither Leopold II’s international benevolent committee for the propagation of civilization among the people’s of Central Africa (the Association Internationale Africaine (AIA) or the African International Association) that so informed George Orwell’s understanding of doublespeak, and that Leopold quickly transformed into his personal exploitive development company as he was named by the 1884 Conference of Berlin as the Roi-Souverain of the newly formed Congo Free State or État Indépendant du Congo allowed Leopold to rule by decree (such as making all unregistered private property or vacant land as his personal domain or introducing the Force Publique to enforce “order” ostensibly to stifle the Arab trade in slaves but constituting a private mercenary militia to recruit and control corvée laborers), Congolese workers were now reduced to serfs, an event captured so creatively in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 classic Heart of Darkness. Sir Robert Casement in his 1900 report to the British Foreign Office did not mince words. The exploitation and suffering and mass killing of the Congolese was not the result of an Indian-like bureaucracy or thoughtless behaviour, but the deliberate product of greed reinforced by modern arms and a mercenary military regime. In his famous words, “The root of the evil [in the Congo] lies in the fact that the government of the Congo is above all a commercial trust, that everything else is orientated towards commercial gain.”
Not bureaucracy but greed uninhibited by the rule of law lay at the root of that exploitation, murder, death by disease and starvation that devastated the Congo. But Hannah Arendt was a political “thinker” in which thoughts and a grand idée fixée rather than a petite idée became incontrovertible facts rather than interpretations immune to refutation by picayune details or actual empirical data. (See Adam Hochschild (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.) Congo rule, in empirical fact, was not based on a bureaucratic hierarchical organization of trained professionals and specialized officials governed by administrative rules and the control of information whether efficient or byzantine. In empirical fact, Leopold’s organization never consisted of more than 200 officials. Arendt had bought into Blücher’s Marxist conviction that the bureaucracy is the state which has made itself into civil society.
The movie begins with a brief re-enactment of the capture of Adolph Eichmann on a rural road in Argentina as the Mossad agents pile Eichmann into the back of a large truck leaving only the lit flashlight he was using lying in the dirt. For a more or less accurate picture of the capture, a viewer could watch the documentary that mixes interviews and historical footage with re-enactments in the 2010 documentary, Eichmann's End: Love, Betrayal and Death. The film, Hannah Arendt, is a biopic that leaves out interviews in favour of re-enactments or even imagined scenes that never took place. One would never know from the latter film, but could learn from the former, that Adolph Eichmann belonged to a group of unrepentant fanatic antisemitic Nazis who dreamed of vindication. Nor would one learn of the close collaboration between a Frankfurt prosecutor and the Israel's Mossad, as well as the chance flirtation between one of Eichmann's son and Silvia Hermann, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, enabled that capture.
The false note also ends the film when in a wholly imagined scene, Israeli Mossad agents accost Hannah Arendt on an American country road and demand that she abandon her plans to publish her book on Eichmann because such a book would hurt the victims of the Nazi Holocaust a second time. Arendt rejects the plea and walks off, leaving totally unexplained why a team of Mossad agents would be needed to deliver such a plea and jump out of a car to do so except to portray the snake`s tail in the serpent`s own mouth to bring the end back to the beginning of the movie in a repetitious “walking my lonely road” scene. Except in Argentina, the men overpower Eichmann with physical force and violence. In America, Arendt overpowers the Mossad agents with the power of words and the impression of an argument. Unlike Eichmann, Arendt is not an ordinary unthinking being but an extraordinary female intellectual beneath whom men must grovel. Here, she stands up to the Mossad agents and tells them off; they slink away, grumbling impotent before the truth as Arendt quips that Israel must now be very rich since it could afford to send four men to deter her will to publish the book. The arc is completed but with a clear even if unintended anti-Semitic stench.
The movie is an aesthetic circle and a tautological expression of a point of view. When Hannah Arendt was a Zionist in the thirties and worked for a German Zionist organization, she became close friends of Siegried Moses. As a member of the government at the time of the Eichmann trial, he did contact Hannah Arendt and even met her in Switzerland to try to convince her not to go ahead with the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem as a book. But this scene went far beyond poetic license in recapitulating that meeting. It is a calumny that reinforces this brilliant film as philosophic porn and completely unjust, unfair, lacking in understanding and critical comprehension of the core intellectual issues.
But this film is not about Eichmann's betrayal and execution but about the loyalty of HA's close entourage including her husband and Mary McCarthy (played with extraordinary conviction by Janet McTeer) as an exemplification of von Trotta`s theme of sisterhood and Hannah Arendt`s intense sociability and loyalty to friends superimposed by a fusion of European superior worldliness - you don`t have to marry all your lovers Arendt tells McCarthy. McCarthy and Arendt banter back and forth, not about ideas, but about husbands, lovers and infidelities. Though Alfred Kazan, Hans Morgenthau, Irving Howe, Robert Lowell, Bruno Bettleheim and Raul Hilberg (then the foremost scholar on the Holocaust who first offered the critical but more judicious and scholarly critical rather than moralistic and judgemental comments on the role of the Jewish Councils) stuck by and even defended her, I was unable to spot them in the film though I am sure some of them were there. But movies demand such economies and shorthand representations. The film has to be recognized as creatively bringing Hannah Arendt`s thinking and writing back into the mainstream and making it accessible, but only by following in the footsteps of her brilliant predecessor, Leni Riefenstahl, and producing a brilliant piece of hagiography. Margarethe von Trotta was the first woman since Riefenstahl to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Riefenstahl won for her 1938 film, Olympia.
A subsidiary theme inadequately examined is Arendt`s view of the role of the Jewish Councils in cooperating with the Nazis although this, according to the film, was the central issue that alienated Arendt from the Jewish community, especially the charge made without any empirical evidence that more Jews would have been saved had the Jewish leadership refused to offer any cooperation. “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” For a far more insightful cinematic representation into that aspect of the issue, see Claude Lanzmann`s new film The Last of the Unjust as Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein in 1975 when he was beginning his project on Shoah. Lanzmann headed a Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto and was the only Jewish leader in such a position to survive the genocide. Ironically, he was also the only Jewish leader who sat next to and worked with Adolph Eichmann and who could have been used to test her hypothesis. Lanzmann reveals that characterizing these leaders as collaborators, whatever their failings, was a big lie. Unlike Eichmann who is portrayed by Arendt as being caught up in the wind of the Nazi process passively, Arendt portrayed these leaders as actively selling out their fellow Jews when they wanted to protect Jews and totally opposed the Nazi ideology. Unlike Eichmann, they were truly powerless to resist. But, unlike Arendt herself even after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Murmelstein was treated as a real pariah by the Jewish community because Hannah Arendt merely reflected the conventional but unarticulated and erroneous conviction of the Jewish community, especially the Yekke Jewish community, that these leaders had betrayed the Jewish people.
Living in her grand apartment on Riverside Drive in Morningside Heights in Manhattan well south of the Washington Heights community where the New York Yekkes congregated, Arendt nevertheless remained a cultural member of the Yekke community-in-exile who spoke German at home and remained faithful to German culture as the core of inherited civilization and the exemplification of intellectual virtue. Yekke is a Yiddish expression itself possibly derived from the Rheinish term for a mad fool, an intellectual court jester. (See Stephen M. Lowenstein (1989) Frankfurt on the Hudson: The German Jewish Community of Washington Heights, 1933-1962, its Structure and Culture; the book ends with the period in which Hannah Arendt was writing her book.) Hannah Arendt was a Yekke to her core and arrogantly looked down upon the eastern Jews who she alleged exemplified servility in the face of the Nazi onslaught, forgetting that as a German Jew she was only saved because she could flee in 1933 and they could not in 1941, that she was saved by the efforts of those such as Albert Hirschman, Protestant activist bystanders and the Jewish community.
However, Hannah Arendt, while extolling the virtues of intellectual independence, turned her back on another Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, mending the world and actually serving and working for the marginalized and oppressed as she did in the thirties. As her friend, Gershom Scholem, who found her book on Eichmann “heartless” and “malicious”, wrote: “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as Ahabath Israel, or Love for the Jewish people. In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find no trace of this.”
Von Trotta captures Arendt`s rebuttal to Scholem in her arguments with Jonas and Blumenthal when she expresses the feeling that she only feels for individuals and friends not for a people. Love for any collectivity is repudiated, even when that love leads to saving the lives of individuals who are strangers. The dictum to love the stranger as oneself is a foreign and alien concept to her even though it lay behind the effort to save her life in France and bring her to America.
A glance in passing is also paid in the film to her perhaps most controversial claim about the purpose of trials in dealing with crimes against humanity and the nature of justice. Reference is made to her view (and that of Blücher) that criminal trials have to focus on the acts of individuals not on putting history on trial. Blücher states: "You can't put history on trial. You can only try one man." Justice is about the actions of singular individuals and hints are made, but it is not expanded upon, of her actual loathing for the Israeli prosecutor, Gideon Hausner. Arendt in her book discusses at length her contention that the trial should not have been used to bring to public consciousness the horrors of the Holocaust, thereby converting a trial about the crimes of one individual into a show trial. The fact that the trial achieved that purpose, the fact that this biopic does the same for her own ideas, is simply left unexamined. For after all, thinking is not about the examined life but about the intellectually expressed life. What we do get is Hannah Arendt wandering around Jerusalem dismayed and bewildered by witnesses fainting and by Israelis frozen listening to their radios as they follow the trial proceedings. For von Trotta, Arendt will be accused of arrogance and emotional indifference, but in the film this stupefaction is portrayed as an act of intellectual courage by a woman unwilling to be carried away by the emotion of the moment.
One of my favourite films of all times is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, even though the portrait of Oskar Schindler bears only a glancing overlap with the real historical figure whereas the Hannah Arendt of Von Trotta`s film bears a close resemblance to the real historical figure. Oskar Schindler, however, was not a Nazi business opportunist who underwent an epiphany as he witnessed the horrific clearing of the Lodz ghetto portrayed with such immaculate realism to become the saviour of 1400 or so Jews. His two best friends as a boy were the sons of the rabbi who lived next door. He was a spy for the Abswehr, the centre of anti-Nazi activity in the German admiralty. He was also a money runner for the Zionists who helped fund his business investments. He was always a philo-Semite. But you will learn none of this from watching the film which follows the tried and true format of Hollywood holocaust films that follow a Christian trope of villainy, revelation and redemption. Nevertheless, the film, in spite of its lack of reverence for anything but visual truth, offers a powerful portrayal of the Holocaust even if a very inaccurate portrait of a bystander who saved Jews.
This von Trotta film does the reverse, presenting a reasonably accurate portrayal of an individual as she appears (rather than as she thinks) while buying into her distortions and misconceptions about another individual, Adolph Eichmann, and her misunderstandings of the Holocaust. Both films have Hollywood endings, the survivors in Schindler’s List coming over the hill to arrive in the land of Israel. Hannah Arendt ends with Arendt’s triumphal speech at the New School defending her interpretation as her academic and perhaps too-Jewish looking enemies largely scurry away like intellectual cowards as her beautiful Aryan-appearing students applaud rapturously. Of course, von Trotta offered a similar Hollywood trope in her 2003 film, Rosenstrasse, where women save men from their intellectual folly. After all, the stuff of movies is made up of fantasies and not history and that is why, in the tension between aesthetics and truth, there is no recognition of how truth is betrayed in such films. In this failing, there is an even greater failure, the failure to connect the love of fantasy with the commission of crimes against humanity.
Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a very different film, a biopic about a thinker, John Nash (played wonderfully by Russell Crowe), a Nobel Laureate and professor at Princeton renowned for his contributions to chaos theory and its application to cryptography and economics. It follows a standard trope of biopics in portraying creative brilliance as the protagonist wrestles with his inner demons, this time, not alcoholism or drugs but paranoid schizophrenia and the delusional episodes it often brought on. Like Schindler’s List, the movie was highly popular and won numerous academy awards – best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress as well as nominations for others. Further, Ron Howard’s movie was unique in actually providing an insight into the life of the mind of a creative mathematical genius even as it omitted key aspects of Nash’s personal life, especially his other family and his illegitimate son who are ignored in the film. Like Schindler’s List, whose epiphany takes place at the sight of the little girl in red in the midst of the clearing of the ghetto, an imaginary little girl, Marcee, who “never gets old”, provides the turning point for Nash to master and control his own delusions without the assistance of medication, a regimen that will help him live as normal a life as possible as he both lives with his delusions and imaginary foes to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his contributions to game theory. Like Schindler, this is a movie about a hero.
In Hannah Arendt as presented by von Trotta we are presented with an idea as if it emerges as an epiphany from watching the supposed ordinariness of Adolph Eichmann when in fact the idea was already a preconception she already possessed and projected onto Eichmann. If Arendt and Blücher railed against the absolutist and essentialist tendencies in Western thought in which Hegel was purportedly its modern arch-enemy who inspired Stalin via Marx, there is no recognition either of the scholarly distortion of this interpretation just as there is no recognition that the ardent defence of an original idea and insight defended with passion as the most important expression of life was both at the core of the tradition they attacked without recognizing it and also a real betrayal of thinking where empirical falsification, attention to detail and contradictions are essential.
Here is how Blücher is portrayed in David Laskin’s book, Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals: “Blücher was every inch the self-made man, the man of the people, the outsider who thumbed his nose at received opinions as he beat a path to a higher, sturdier, strikingly original truth of his own manufacture.“ In the words of Alfred Kazin, the close friend of both Hannah and her husband, Blücher, the fantastic talker with a hypnotic style, is described in his diary as “an unstoppable mental creature (who) orates without stopping in his living room on any `great thinker` who has aroused his attention–from Heraclitus to Joachim of Floris… shouting philosophy at you in the sweetest kind of way. . . . Heinrich is given to fantasy and exaggeration, noble lies about his military knowledge.” Like Arendt, he was indifferent to the virtues of accuracy in scholarship. (See their letters in Within Four Walls.) In a film about thought as critical reflection, the style of the film is of unreflective naturalism captured best by beautiful period twin sweater sets that Arendt wears while the ideas are broadcast like titles on a marquee.
It is a wonderful movie that brilliantly captures an aspect of Hannah Arendt, but if that was who she was, then I am even more puzzled by my youthful enchantment with her intellect. Fortunately for me, any simple rereading of her works proves she was much more intellectually interesting even if her take on Eichmann was both foolish and wrong and even if her idea on the banality of evil left only a residue of truth that most genocidal actual murders are carried out by ordinary people and not by mad demons. On the sub-theme of the tension between Hannah Arendt and the Jewish community, I await Michael Marrus’ forthcoming book on the lessons from history, particularly the lessons from the Holocaust. Was Peter Novick correct that Americans after first refusing to come face-to-face with the Holocaust because of the Cold War and a refusal to identify with victims, only came to accept the Holocaust in the aftermath of the Eichmann trial to organize support for Israel as the Holocaust became the emblem of historical Jewish suffering in the competition for victimhood as the mode by which Jews bought into Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment not to give Hitler a posthumous victory? Are Jews pariahs because they are Jews (and Zionists) or because, as Hannah Arendt claimed, they happen to be intellectuals? Or is being a pariah – ideological, national or intellectual – just their contemporary shtick? Does the Holocaust have any lessons to teach us?
The only certitude that I have is that the certainties that Margarethe von Trotta projects onto the screen and Hannah Arendt espoused on the subject were incorrect.