When bad movies happen to profound philosophers

Hannah Arendt,’ ill-served again (2nd review)

5 minute read
The real Hannah Arendt eludes an Israeli-German-French film project.
The real Hannah Arendt eludes an Israeli-German-French film project.
Hannah Arendt, the movie, will not serve well Hannah Arendt, the woman and the philosopher. This is unfortunate because she deserves better.

Hannah Arendt was one of the 20th Century's most profound philosophical and political thinkers. When the Nazi death camps were liberated in 1945 and the full horror of what had happened during World War II began to emerge, Arendt declared: "The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe." Unfortunately, that didn't happen in Europe; it didn't happen in the United States; it didn't happen anywhere.

Nevertheless, Arendt did more than her part in her perceptive and penetrating analyses of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Banned in Israel

This biopic— directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa in the title role— was not intended as a hagiography. Neither was it intended to reinforce the negative images of Arendt as a self-hating Jew who minimized the culpability of Adolf Eichmann and blamed Jewish leaders for aiding and abetting the Nazis in their "final solution."

As the film makes clear, however, these were indeed the initial impressions of many American Jews, Israelis and ordinary subscribers to The New Yorker in 1963, when Arendt's report from Jerusalem was first published in the magazine and in book form.

The negative reaction to Arendt was especially strong in Israel, where a Hebrew translation of Eichmann in Jerusalem did not appear until more than 40 years after it was first published. (The film itself, interestingly, is a joint Israeli-German-French project.)

The judges' 'speech'

Those first impressions were, in my judgment, deeply flawed misunderstandings of Arendt's report on the Jerusalem trial. Nowhere is this more evident than in the charge that she did not take Eichmann's guilt seriously. Among the most moving passages of her report are the closing paragraphs in which she pens an address she believes the Jerusalem judges should have delivered to Eichmann in sentencing him:

"Politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations— as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world— we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang."

I rather suspect that because Arendt's report was such a "media event" at the time, more people bought her book or the magazine than actually read them. Thus the widespread misunderstanding of her major themes, which became household phrases.

Skimming past Heidegger

But if Arendt's readership was at fault in the 1960s, those who wrote the script and directed this movie are responsible today. Attempting more than a courtroom drama of the Eichmann trial but less than a full biography of Arendt, the filmmakers pack too many complex relationships and big ideas into 113 minutes with far too little intellectual substance for support.

We are introduced to Arendt's youthful love affair with the highly acclaimed but controversial Nazi-Party-member philosopher Martin Heidegger, but no more than introduced in flashbacks. We are informed by Arendt of the role of Jewish councils in assisting the Germans in identifying and assembling Jews for the purpose of sending them to concentration camps and their certain deaths. We are told repeatedly of Arendt's arrogance. And, of course, the centerpieces are the biggest ideas of all, the "banality of evil" (from Eichmann in Jerusalem) and "radical evil" (from The Origins of Totalitarianism).

The above is heavy baggage for any movie to assume without careful thought about how to unpack it. Those responsible for this movie didn't bring that kind of thought to this project, and in failing to do so did a disservice to Hannah Arendt.

Spencer Tracy's answer

It should be noted that clarity can be brought to complex issues of the sort raised in Hannah Arendt. A classic example is the exchange in Judgment at Nuremberg between the American judge Dan Haywood (played by Spencer Tracy) and the German judge Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster):

Janning: "Judge Haywood…the reason I asked you to come: Those people, those millions of people… I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it; you must believe it."

Haywood: "Herr Janning, "'it came to that' the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."

Dialogue of this sort rarely surfaces in Hannah Arendt. Even the film's final seven-minute segment of the film, in which Arendt defends her writing before an assembly of students, faculty, and administrators, fails to rise to this standard.

For her courageous and dispassionate contributions to the study of evil, Hannah Arendt deserves better, much better, than the reception she received after her 1963 publication— and also after, I fear, the 2012 film.♦

To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read another review by Victor Schermer, click here.
To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a follow-up commentary by Gresham Riley, click here.
To read a response by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read other responses, click here.
To read a follow-up by Victor L. Schermer, click here.

What, When, Where

Hannah Arendt. A film directed by Margarethe von Trotta. At Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St. For show times, click here. For film website, click here.

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