Hannah Arendt is a substantial and worthwhile portrait of the influential and controversial thinker who gave us the phrase “the banality of evil.”
Hannah Arendt. Directed by Margarethe von Trotta. German and Hebrew with subtitles. At the Coolidge Corner Theatre.
When Hannah Arendt approached New Yorker editor William Shawn with her offer to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann shortly to begin in Jerusalem, she had no way of knowing that the result—published as Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), after serialization in the magazine—would arouse undying controversy. Nor could the famously—even fiercely?—placid Shawn have foreseen that Arendt’s reporting would put The New Yorker at the center of a debate about the Holocaust, though, if truth be told, Shawn had prior warning: the magazine’s publication of Phillip Roth’s story, “Defender of the Faith” in 1959, had attracted its fair share of ire.
Roth’s story focused on a Jewish conscript’s effort to avoid combat in World War II by appealing to his sergeant’s Jewishness. The story does not, in the end, exonerate this sort of appeal to Jewish solidarity, Auschwitz or no Auschwitz. Nor, of course, did Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem exonerate all Jewish behavior; it accused the Jewish leadership of Eastern European communities of, in effect, smoothing the way to the death camps. As she saw it, chaos would have worked better for Jewish survival than the efficient, top down organization imposed by Jewish communal leadership.
The best critique of Arendt’s approach is Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial. Though Lipstadt defends Arendt against many who have tried to savage her, she adds a telling charge of her own: Arendt simply absented herself from key proceedings at the trial, choosing, instead, despite her brief for the New Yorker, to vacation, when it suited her, in Switzerland. The proceedings Arendt missed, according to Lipstadt, happen to have been the very ones when Eichmann bared his teeth, sloughed off his disguise, and showed he didn’t merely follow orders, as he often averred during the trial, but was a vehement Nazi, a true Jew-hater, and a committed genocidaire.
Hannah Arendt doesn’t follow Lipstadt’s lead in this matter, but the film is nevertheless substantial and worthwhile. It depicts Arendt’s milieu in New York City, when she taught at the New School and was acclaimed, as well she deserved to be, as author of The Origins Of Totalitarianism. The critique Arendt mounts in that book of the leadership of French Jewry in regard to the Dreyfuss Affair prefigures her critique of Jewish leadership during World War II and repays study.
The movie also gets some atmospherics right—the fact that most every intellectual, and most everybody else, including Arendt, smoked cigarettes endlessly in that era; the view, however foggy, of the Hudson as seen, putatively, from Arendt’s Upper West Side apartment where she conducted what was in effect a salon, a salon with roots in enlightenment Europe and with connections to the world she depicted marvelously in Rachel Varnhagen, her portrait of a German Jewish salonier. (It might have been a nice touch if the movie had shown Robert Lowell, for instance, attending Arendt’s Upper West Side salon, as he often appreciatively did. But Margarethe von Trotta is a German filmmaker, and that aspect of the Arendt milieu might well have escaped her, though it raises the questions of what von Trotta’s German audience has made of this movie, about Jewish-German emigres, and Jews.)
And above all, there is the opposition the film, to its credit, puts forward but perhaps also to its credit, does not push more forcefully, the opposition, that is, between Eichmann, in his glass cage at the trial—“to protect him from us,” according to one of Arendt’s Israeli friends—and Martin Heidegger, Arendt’s lover during her student days and her mentor in the art of “thinking.”
The film portrays Heidegger saying—I both paraphrase and fill in—that to think, to think philosophically or better yet ontologically, is not practical or ambitious. It has nothing to do with technology or progress. It is carried out in solitude, leads nowhere, and is therefore all the more fundamental.
Mystical as this may seem, it had resonance for Arendt, and even after it was well-established that Heidegger had allied himself in craven ways with Nazism, it resonated for European philosophical “thinking.”
The movie presents Eichmann, for Arendt, as the anti-Heidegger. He has no thought at all. That, at any rate, is what she accuses him of, utter shrecklich—terrifying—thoughtlessness. Through flashbacks, the movie suggests that Heidegger is her anti-Eichmann. Arendt met with her ex-lover and mentor after the war but never forgave and perhaps never got over his Nazism. It is Heidegger she wants to see on the stand, in the glass cage in Jerusalem, refuting the charges laid against him, standing up, ontologically, for the right of Hitler and the Nazis to murder the Jews.
Arendt, this movie suggests, hungered for that high dialectic. Instead she got only someone incapable of anything approaching it—Eichmann. And so sojourned in Basel.