Hannah Arendt

If there’s one semi-comforting thing we can take from the movie Hannah Arendt, about the 20th century philosopher who used the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Nazi-ism, it’s that people have always reacted to ideas they don’t like with hysterical over-reaction.

Arendt was a philosopher and one-time lover of Heidegger who wrangled an assignment to cover the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine. Many months, and 300 pages later, she wrote a philosophical treatise which really pissed a lot of people off.

The two main objections, at least per the movie, were her assertion that Eichmann was less a monster and more the sort of bureaucrat certain societies were bound to produce, and that the Jewish leaders could’ve somewhat mitigated the Holocaust had they been less cooperative.

The movie takes place ca. 1960 and at first focuses on Arendt’s personal relationships, which is the very definition of banal, really. She runs with a very European crowd, apparently has some sort of open-ish marriage with her husband that seems in no way to diminish their fondness for each other, and her students love her.

When the stuff surrounding Eichmann’s trial starts, things get a lot more interesting. In fact, the actual footage of Eichmann’s trial and her reflections on it are so much more engaging than the typical biopic stuff, I suspect that the director (Margarethe von Trotte—really!) showed all that stuff less because it was interesting and more because it rebutted the number one criticism of Arendt: That she was cold.

I liked it, and more than the kids who had a little hard time following it. It’s 90% in German, and 100% Existentialist, so the subtitles fly past with some fairly dense content.

I had some problems with it, though, and they may have had to do with the limitations of the form or actual weaknesses in Arendt’s philosophy. For example, it never seems to occur to Arendt that Eichmann is just lying.

No doubt his trial was political, and it surprises me not at all that there wasn’t a ton of evidence of his personal, actual crimes. Furthermore, you don’t need to convince me that large organizations, particularly governments, enable people to do the most horrifying things without taking any responsibility for them.

At the same time, if the righteous racial anger of the Jews were wholly focused on former Nazi me, I’d be lying so hard even I believed it. And who’d be around to contradict me? (And while I’m no expert on the matter, I’m pretty sure Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust was hardly that of a mere functionary.)

So, while there was certainly a great deal of soulless government bureaucracy at work, Eichmann probably wasn’t the best example of that. (Again, talking about the movie, not the actual work that I haven’t read.)

Meanwhile, the other point (that Jewish leaders cooperated too much with the authorities) is valid, for sure, but it’s also the Grand Champion Hall of Fame Winner of Monday morning quarterbacking. It’s easy to say they should’ve done it different, but without something enlightening to add, it comes off as kind of glib.

I mean, who looks at the ruins of the most destructive war known to Man and says, “Well, that could’ve gone better?”

And let’s face it: She was cold. Not personally, but as a philosopher trying to reason something out, an unemotional approach is reasonable and even admirable. At the same time, her complete inability to predict how people would react to what she wrote doesn’t speak volumes for her understanding of the humanity she hoped to improve.

Barbara Sukowa gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) does a good job, too. I especially liked Megan Gay as the catty New Yorker editor who’s dubious about having Arendt write for them.

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