Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Hannah Arendt": A Review of the film by Margarethe Von Trotta

At some point during my undergraduate days, I met (in a manner of speaking), a woman for whom I developed a great crush. Alas, she was much older than me. Indeed, I never met her in the flesh, only in her writings. I developed an intellectual crush on Hannah Arendt.

She was not easy to get along with. Pronouncements and judgments in her writings came down like thunderbolts. Greek and Latin, French and German: her sources were legion. I spent a lot of time puzzled by what she'd written to me (well, to everyone who read her books). She often left me dumbfounded by her assertions. "Where did she get that from?” I'd often ask myself. (Silently, of course. While not exactly secret lovers, I didn't want people hear me talking to her pages.)

It was only later that I read what became her most controversial and widely discussed book, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Her report on the Eichmann trial held in Jerusalem in 1960, which she wrote about for the New Yorker and then turned into the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, created a firestorm of controversy. It is this segment of Arendt's life that the Von Trotta film explores. 

Arendt made two points about Eichmann that raised the ire of some.First, her contention that Eichmann was not a man of radical evil (later, she concluded that evil was never radical, only good could be radical). Rather, he was a follower, a man who did not think. And for Arendt, a student of Martin Heidegger (a whole other issue alluded to in the film), thinking--really thinking--is the key to our humanity. Some complained the Arendt defended Eichmann and let him off; in fact, she didn't. Arendt clearly stated that he deserved the death penalty that he received. She sought to understand him, not to pardon him. From her experience of Eichmann, she coined the phrase that has remained with us, the "banality of evil". 

Arendt's second contention that created great controversy, especially among the Jewish community, was her claim that Jewish leaders too often corroborated with the Nazis in furthering Nazi schemes, hoping for a better result. But in the end, the Jewish efforts only made the Final Solution easier to conduct. The implication that the Jews were anything other than mere victims, that Jewish leadership could have taken steps to reduce the horror of the Shoah, raised deep resentments and recriminations against Arendt. In fact, Arendt was a German-Jewish refugee who had fled Germany shortly after Hitler's rise to power. She was intered in France by the Vichy government. She was lucky to have escaped and to have received a visa  to the U.S. She was also the author of the first major study of Nazism and Stalinism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Some close friends rejected her as a result of her publications about Eichmann. Some reviled her, although with Mary McCarthy as a close friend, she had a sharp-tongued defender on her side. 

This is not an action flick. It's about a philosopher who cared deeply about thinking and about politics in the 20th century. The film starts slowly, but it builds, and the scene near the end, where she lectures and defends her conclusions, proves well worth the wait. She had probed deeply into wounds that were still fresh and extremely painful, and she paid a high price for her willingness--even eagerness--to explore these issues. 

Arendt in her Manhattan apartment, 1971

I no longer hold the same degree of fascination with Arendt that I once had. Her conception of politics seems too remote and too grand for reality. But I still admire her deeply. (Her photo, as a lovely young woman, is one of those that I use for my screen saver, which consists of images of persons whom I admire.) Her conclusion about the banality of evil has been buttressed not only by history, but also by research such as that of Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's authority experiments. These lessons remind us that evil comes not only from the extraordinary, but from the otherwise normal, those who simply don't "think" about the moral consequences of their actions and who value loyalty to a group or leader above personal autonomy and respect for fellow humans. Historians have since suggested that Eichmann may not have been as naive or bland as she concluded. I don't think that she'd argue with a well-researched and considered reassessment of her conclusions about Eichmann the person. Unfortunately, few did the careful work and research into these issues at the time of the publication of her work. 

A younger Arendt, who graces my screen-saver

Her assessment of the Jewish leadership is another issue that history, through careful research and argument, must sort out. I don't know the current state of thinking on this issue. (For a fine assessment of the banality of evil motif and of Eichmann in particular, read this piece by Roger Berkowitz.)

This film reveals a philosopher of courage and determination. It also displays how hard we must work to overcome biases received from our group loyalties.We have to think (a form of work) to come to grips with our common humanity, in all its array of good and evil, fallibility and aspiration. In the end, this is the message of the film and of Arendt's work.


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